In 2012, Denis Côté made a quiet splash on the festival circuit with Bestiaire, his wordless film documenting the animals kept at a Quebec zoo and the eyes that come to look at them. In his new drama, Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, Côté takes aim at another world of captivity, this one entirely human. Victoria (Pierrette Robitaille) is a striking sixtysomething woman just out of prison. Before long, she's shacked up in the Quebec countryside, taking over the home of her infirm uncle, who is callously dispatched to an elder care facility to make room for Flo (Romane Bohringer), a fellow ex-con and Victoria's lover. For the older, settled Vic, the quiet country life is idyllic. For the younger (and bisexual) Flo, the seclusion becomes an irritant, and soon she's hanging out at the bar and hooking up with random dudes.
By the time a new woman inserts herself into their lives and finds a flirty friendship with Vic, I figured Côté was crafting a gorgeously shot slice-of-life film about a pair of lovers learning they no longer need each other. I would've been perfectly happy with this progression. With Spike Jonze's Her and Asghar Farhadi's The Past, it's been a banner year for loving explorations of untenable love, and for a stretch, Vic + Flo seems on track to be another fine addition. But then a figure from the past arrives, and Vic + Flo twists from an edgy domestic drama to a plot worthy of the dirtiest noir, which Côté twists further with bits of numinous magic.
In defiance of everything—the increasingly lurid plot, Côté's lyrical visual compositions, and the passion of the lead actors—the film remains almost clinically chilly, leaving viewers to piece together the mystery and denying us several basic, important facts. It's not a film that exerts itself to attract you. But give it an hour's worth of attention, and you'll be riveted to the end.