From its deliberately perplexing opening of a woman scolding a pair of young street musicians for not performing well enough to earn her tip, to its late-film turn into Grand Guignol body horror, Vic + Flo Saw a Bear presents its tonal switch-ups and narrative swerves with a deadpan belligerence by turns stimulating, calculated, and poignant. Denis Côté's film follows titular couple Vic (Pierrette Robitaille) and Flo (Romane Bohringer), a pair of recently released convicts and on-the-rocks lovers who have retreated to the sugar shack of Vic's dying uncle in rural Quebec. Hoping to turn the page on their previous sins (which have been assiduously obscured in Côté's screenplay), the women nevertheless remain haunted by specters of the past, most notably in the form of prying parole officer Guillaume (Marc-André Grondin). The presence of chatty neighbor Marina (Marie Brassard), with her friendly offers of gardening tips to Vic, would seem to offer a respite, but even her sunny banter masks ulterior motives.
Mostly, though, Vic and Flo cannot escape the fading-yet-still-present passions of their own prison-kindled romance. Vic, older and less alluring than Flo, obsesses about her partner leaving her now that they're out in the world, while the restless Flo resists Vic's clinginess through frequent trips—and the occasional hook-up—at the local town bar. Such bickering and bitter accusations become all the more painful, as one of Vic + Flo Saw a Bear's great strengths lies in revealing just enough of the couple's flickering former contentment to give its gradual dissolution some heft. Côté's most-inspired narrative jump comes in the introduction of Flo, who arrives at the house after Vic has set herself up there (and of whom the narrative itself reveals nothing at first). Côté suddenly cuts from an isolated Vic to a camera position at the foot of the couple's now-shared bed, where we see the two women's bodies rolling and flopping underneath the floral comforter as they catch up. It's a simple setup—elegantly compact yet evocative—that speaks to an intimacy that will soon be revealed as past its expiration date. Robitaille and Bohringer sketch this romantic curdling with battle-scarred authority, particularly in a late-film reckoning of their relationship that feels revelatory without resorting to artificial emotional fireworks.
It becomes clear early on that Côté isn't interested in making a bit of slice-of-life psychological realism. The aforementioned encounter between Flo and the pint-sized trumpet players sets a tone of pungent unpredictability that will be slowly amped up as the film progresses. Vic + Flo Saw a Bear somewhat lays the groundwork for darker, surprising elements to emerge late in the narrative through its overt visual style: the sudden cuts to as-yet-undefined narrative spaces; the look of the film itself, with dark forest greens and washed-out blues, casting a perennial, foreboding gloom over the characters.
Nevertheless, there's something both expected and more-than-a-little rote about the film's “shocking” turn to violent revenge in its final scenes. The sudden uptick in gore couched in largely unexplored notions of primal malevolence and moral inevitability seems predesigned to give Vic + Flo Saw a Bear a zap of aggressive existentialism, rubbing our noses in the random rot of the universe. Given the bruising and well-sketched psychological gamesmanship of the earlier scenes, however, such a move tends to cheapen the film's overall emotional and aesthetic texture, brusquely shoe-horning “meaning” where it doesn't quite fit. That Côté manages to recapture some of the film's more-integrated mixture of tones in an affecting fantasy coda only underscores the extent to which Vic + Flo Saw a Bear has invested us in the interior life of its central couple—and the damage done when Côté begins to see them less as human beings than objects to be placed in a dubiously sinister, “modern fairy tale” tableau.