The whole “reformed criminal makes a grasp at respectability” trope is a well-worn one. And at first glance, Denis Côté’s 2013 film Vic + Flo Saw a Bear doesn’t deviate far from it – until you look closer at the characters and what they’re made of. The titular Vic (Pierrette Robitaille) is 61 years old, a lesbian, and an ex-convict. Newly released from prison, she lands at a long-shuttered sugar shack in sleepy rural Quebec owned by an estranged uncle, and finds him severely ill and in need of constant care. A gentle-hearted parole officer (Marc-André Grondin) starts to poke into her affairs. Then Vic’s lover Florence (Romane Bohringer) is released from prison –passionate and chaotic, threatening to undo Vic’s attempts at rebuilding a peaceful existence at every turn. Meanwhile, another mysterious woman begins showing up on the property, claiming to be a water inspector from the city, and displaying a friendliness that is increasingly suspect.
As the movie’s disparate elements begin to close in, so do its many moments of subversion and surprise. It’s refreshing to see this type of story – a pastoral noir, set in the lushly isolated enclaves of the Quebec forest – enacted by hard-bitten characters who are female, queer and over the age of 40. Vic and Flo’s relationship – and its pivot from a predictable co-dependent toxicity into something more deeply felt – also feels novel for this type of story.
Côté, who also wrote the film, softens the story’s potboiler elements with moments that are left unexplained: a tough guy climbs from a van and plucks out a bluegrass guitar refrain, while a small boy walks in and out of the narrative aimlessly playing his trumpet. While the film’s shocking and violent conclusion may feel inevitable, it is also overlaid with a dreamlike sensibility, leaving us wondering what this was all really about. Is Vic + Flo a metaphor for the pitfalls of queer domesticity, or is it about the fallacy of damaged people trying to make it in the straight world? Côté does not leave us with any easy answers, and that keeps Vic + Flo compelling in spite of its adherence to genre conventions.