The tendency of violence to beget more violence has been the concern of artists since long before Aeschylus wrote about Orestes, who killed his mother for killing his father for killing his sister. Quebec–based Denis Côté’s brutal fable Vic + Flo Saw a Bear is similarly preoccupied by violence’s terrible fecundity, and this exceptional French-language film’s strongest elements are borrowed from Greek tragedy. It’s an ominous, claustrophobic, unhappily sapphic work whose thunderclap of a climax instills terror and awe of the fates’ petty, whimsical cruelties.
Vic and Flo are Victoria (Pierrette Robitaille) and Florence (Romane Bohringer), a lesbian couple reunited after 61-year-old Vic’s release from jail. (Her crime is never revealed, but she received a life sentence for it.) As part of her parole agreement, Vic moves in with her near-comatose uncle Émile (Georges Molnar) in a part of Canada so remote the villagers only drive golf carts on the rocky, narrow roads. “I’m old enough to know I hate people,” she explains to fortysomething Flo, who finds an escape from the confines of small-town life and Vic’s emotional dependence in bar hook-ups with men.
Lush as a rainforest yet nearly barren of hospitality, Vic and Flo’s new environs teem with the promise of menace. Vic’s assumption of the duties of caring for her uncle leads to an angry, drunken confrontation instigated by her unhinged, bug-eyed neighbor. She’s intruded upon at unpredictable hours by her handsome but distant parole officer, Guillaume (Marc-André Grondin). Only a leather-jacket-clad gardener with a stylish shag cut (Marie Brassard) displays kindness, but she doesn’t look like she belongs, either.
Not that Vic and Flo have the emotional energy to process the threats of impending trouble. The women are too busy breaking up as slowly as they can. Flo’s feral defensiveness and Vic’s gritted-teeth determination to enjoy her final years lead to a compellingly messy dissolution as preordained as Alka-Seltzer in water. Vic can forgive Flo’s infidelity, but the younger woman chafes against the bonds of tranquil domesticity. After Flo suffers a serious injury, she even turns her doting girlfriend’s massages in bed into a transgression. “You know you’ve been nicer since I’ve had my cast?” she accuses. As a former criminal, Flo wields distrust like a shield. Vic’s newfound serenity is a betrayal and a handicap.
Vic + Flo‘s ravaging power comes from its last 15 minutes, soon after a friendly-eyed sadist declares, “Horrible people like me don’t really exist,” then chuckles grimly in anticipation of the suffering to come. The women are subject to a shocking old-school reckoning — they may deserve a comeuppance, but not to this unjust degree — that is as fancifully vicious and as strangely transcendent as the final twist in Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy. (Here’s a hint: The children’s-book-like title works as a nasty joke.) The climax is the kind of plot development that might be entirely avoided if either Vic or Flo had a phone in her pocket, but they’re so geographically isolated they might not get reception anyway. More to the point, it would be nothing but hubris, according to Côté, to believe any mortal can save herself. Violence’s bloodlust will not be denied.