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By Michael Sicinski
In Denis Côté’s Bestiaire (2012), you might have really seen a bear. That’s because it took place in a zoo. As for his latest, au contraire; the grizzlies are not really there. The title’s both a metaphor and a clue: the phrasing, like a picture book, implies that we should take a look at what’s on screen with fresh, untutored eyes. Though N through Z we hath forsook, we presently propose a hook of silly alphabetical surprise.
A is for Alfred Bauer Prize. One of the many Silver Bears awarded at the Berlin Film Festival, the Alfred Bauer has come to be informally understood as a third-place prize, although the Berlinale’s award structure quite pointedly does not mirror that of Cannes. Alfred Bauer was the founder of the Berlinale, and, as per the festival’s own publicity materials, the prize is specifically “for a feature film that opens new perspectives.” Although there is no question that the Berlinale has improved dramatically in recent years, the idea that the film in competition singled out for innovation is semi-officially relegated to third place indicates that festival head Dieter Kosslick still has some work ahead of him, particularly when it comes to impanelling halfway decent juries. Denis Côté’s latest film, this year’s Alfred Bauer, stands proudly alongside last year’s second runner-up, Miguel Gomes’ Tabu; less august recipients (to say the least) include If Not Us Who (Andreas Veiel, 2011) and I’m a Cyborg But That’s OK (Park Chan-wook, 2006).
B is for Bookends. In the opening moments of Vic+Flo, Victoria (Pierrette Robitaille) is waiting at a bus stop. We find out later she has just been released from prison, but at this point we only know that she is a rather tired-looking, but not altogether dishevelled, woman of a certain age, pulling a black suitcase behind her. Two boys, one slightly older than the other, are waiting alongside her; they’re wearing scouting uniforms, and the younger lad is bleating out a series of ugly, quavering notes on a bugle. Victoria explains to them quite firmly that the boy is not very good, and has no business asking for money when he doesn’t know how to play. “You could give me a little money, as encouragement,” the boy suggests. Although at this point Côté cuts to a close-up of Victoria’s luggage rolling up a country road, it is implied that Vic felt no need to contribute to this young amateur’s “good feelings” fund. Much, much later, near the end of the film, when Victoria is in a compromised position, to put it mildly, the young scout with the bugle shows up again. His reappearance, of course, is a formal gag on Côté’s part, since we had all but forgotten about him by this point. He ambles up the forest path, his playing only slightly improved. Victoria, half-conscious, remarks on this but admits she has no money. The boy turns and walks away, playing a semi-competent rendition of a funeral march. Is this boy’s second appearance real, or Victoria’s hallucination? Ironically, if we treat Côté’s film as “naturalistic,” organized by likelihood rather than formalist ironies, then it’s most likely the latter. (The scene recalls the reappearance of the doddering room service waiter in Twin Peaks, after Agent Cooper has been shot.) But in a film that regards each male character as both an individual and a sort of male specimen—a facet, benign or malevolent, of prevalent male power—the boy would appear to be neither cruel nor kind; he is just nascent self-interest in its most unselfconscious form.
C is for Charlot. Upon first arriving at her uncle’s cabin, Victoria encounters a lurking, shirtless teenager who she had seen just moments ago down the road flying a remote-control plane. In fact, she and the viewer see the plane buzzing around the woods before we see the boy or his father. (The use of radio-controlled aircraft to describe ambiguous film space is a kind of micro-theme at this year’s Berlinale: it also plays a role in first-time director Ramon Zürcher’s The Strange Little Cat. Animals and machines, mobility and agency residing everywhere except with humankind…) When Vic confronts the young man, we learn that he is Charlot (Pier-Luc Funk), the neighbour’s kid, who has been coming over to help take care of the cabin’s resident, Uncle Émile (Georges Molnar). He and Victoria strike up a hesitant but tentative rapport. She informs him that she’ll be moving in; he says that’s fine, since she’s family. His only misstep is mentioning to Vic that he will need to run this arrangement by his dad. For Victoria, this is an automatic foul, since the relatively demure young man has now shown himself to be an agent of patriarchal authority, or at least its minion. Victoria half-listens to Charlot’s instructions regarding Émile’s needs (admittedly, she has just returned home after being released from prison, and is dead tired), but what might have been a surrogate mother/son arrangement begins on the wrong foot and never recovers. From this point on, Charlot serves as a mostly silent sidekick to his aggressive, judgmental father. While Charlot is clearly a very minor character in the overall scheme of Vic+Flo, his placement in the margin of larger events is quite purposeful. Côté is providing a glimpse of male privilege in training, mostly as an ambivalent posture with no other available avenue.
D is for Drums. Vic+Flo does not have a very conventional soundtrack. Much of the film relies only on ambient, diegetic sound. However, at certain key tension points, particularly around the appearance of Jackie a.k.a. Marina (Marie Brassard), a mysterious and quite dangerous figure from Flo’s past, Côté introduces an accelerated drumbeat. A snare, with a little kettle and woodblock for additional emphasis, this percussion has a strange impact on the listener in the context of Vic+Flo. Its deployment is clearly meant to suggest anxiety or danger, and yet the skittering beat is rather awkward, resulting in an almost humorous half-approximation of “action music.” This unusual mode, which I can only describe as a form of sonic irony played straight, calls to mind similar music cues in films by Wes Anderson and Hal Hartley. And yet here, the percussion (much like the storybook title) seems to contribute to the hovering sense that we are involved in a fairy tale, a story to be conveyed in broad, simple strokes.
E is for Émile. Upon her arrival at the sugar shack, Victoria discovers her Uncle Émile immobile in an electric wheelchair. Charlot soon informs Vic that Émile has suffered a stroke and is paralyzed. He requires semi-constant care; he cannot feed or bathe himself, he must be taken to the toilet, and he must be mechanically reclined in his chair so that he can sleep. There is a degree of mistrust almost instantly between Vic and Charlot, but nothing compared to the outright distaste Charlot’s father, Nicolas (Olivier Aubin), feels for Victoria. A short, fat man with bulging eyes and a distinctly redneck demeanour, Nicolas clearly resents the fact that he and Charlot have been caring for Émile and Victoria has not. However, this resentment is notable in that it is not directed at Victoria’s brother Yvon (Guy Thauvette), who has apparently been coming to the sugar shack periodically to check on Émile, but not to live with his infirm uncle or make any sort of long-term assisted-care arrangements for him. What accounts for this radical difference in Nicolas and Charlot’s attitude? The obvious answer is gender. Upon discovering the existence of a female relative, the expectation is that she is the one who should have been the caregiver all along. Why wasn’t Victoria up at the sugar shack wiping the old man’s ass all this time? Once Flo (Romane Bohringer) arrives, taking up residence with Vic as her lover, the situation becomes all the more intolerable. The silent, immobile Émile becomes a problem, not only because the women don’t really know how to take care of him, but because, from the male neighbours’ perspective, the women’s lives together draw too sharp a contrast to Émile, parked like furniture in the corner. Vic and Flo, in basic terms, are flouting their duties to the patriarchy. Émile, rather sad and helpless, with his long, stringy white hair, calls to mind the title character of Donald Barthelme’s novel The Dead Father, a sentient being who functions chiefly as a manifestation of waning phallic prerogative. Although bossy little Nicolas obviously wants to make sure Émile is properly cared for, he is far more concerned with halting the intolerable vision of Vic and Flo’s indifference to him. Who do those bitches think they are?
F is for Flo. Romane Bohringer, who has long been a compelling screen presence in mostly second-tier European films such as The Accompanist (Claude Miller, 1992) and The King Is Alive (Kristian Levring, 2000), plays Victoria’s prison girlfriend Flo, who, having been released some time before the start of the film’s main action, comes to the sugar shack to reconnect with her lover upon Vic’s parole. The nosy, nasty Nicolas, upon running into Flo in the local bar, rather offensively asks her, “What is a woman like you doing with that old hag?” Nicolas, ever the voice of unfiltered patriarchy, channels society’s disapproval of the age difference between the two women, which is around 20 years. What people like Nicolas can’t see—in fact, what is visible only to Guillaume (Marc-André Grondin), Victoria’s parole officer—is that the women have an easy rapport despite differences. What will eventually cause trouble is Flo’s criminal past. We never learn specifics, but a dark spectre from her criminal days materializes quite suddenly in the woods that, up to that point, had been a safe haven from prior misdeeds. However, the fact that Flo is the one who brings trouble into the woods is not entirely surprising. She expresses continual ambivalence about holing up with Vic, wanting a life in the city, looking at apartments, as well as having an open relationship that permits her to act on her bisexual desires. Where Vic attempts to sever all outside ties, Flo “flows”: she is the conduit between the woods and the larger world. And as such, she has only so much control over who or what trails her back into her private enclave with Vic. Bad news tails her from the city; she has “let the wrong one in.”
G is for the Gaze. Nous avons parcouru un long chemin, bébé. Not so long ago, the very idea of a male director making a film about lesbians was offensive in and of itself. Since a man, regardless of his own sexual identity, can never understand what it’s like to be a woman, much less a lesbian, and since back in the benighted ’80s and ’90s identity and authentic experience were the benchmarks of political correctness, any representation of female sexuality (and especially female homosexuality) that originated from a male artist, even if it had been created with female collaborators, was fetishism tout court. Needless to say, the politics of that era were every bit as tedious as the previous sentence. (To this day, a notable film critic from that milieu condemns James Benning for allegedly spicing up the “boring” structuralism of 11 x 14  with hot girl-girl action. If the melancholy coupling of Benning’s film—Bob Dylan on the radio—looked like porn to the critic in question, I kind of feel sorry for her.) The film art of the time, at least that which abided by those stringent dictates, resembles well-intentioned but drab audiovisual pamphleteering. We are fortunate to be living in far more (small-c) catholic times, politically speaking. The structures and attitudes of the artwork itself are far more significant than the bona fides of the person who made it. Nevertheless, by any meaningful measure there is nothing in Côté’s film that approximates the dreaded “male gaze.” When we first encounter Vic and Flo as a couple, we see them in bed together, but they are romping and playing under the sheets, one big silly blanket lump. Thereafter, these rather unique, unconventional-looking women are presented quite matter-of-factly, their bodies and sexual lives portrayed within the overall fabric of their rather mundane day-to-day lives. The two women are just as “arousing” to the spectator, really, when they are barrelling down the dirt path on their golf cart. Moments of bliss amidst rural torpor are Vic+Flo’s “cheap thrills.”
H is for Heaven. Vic+Flo ends with many of the same motifs with which it began. Not long after the lousy-but-improving bugle boy wanders off, we see Charlot flying his radio-control plane again, Nicolas standing around, and a long shot down the dirt road from which Victoria first entered the scene at the start of the film, rolling her suitcase as she left prison with the plan of starting a new life. There are, of course, some significant differences. Men from the coroner’s office are loading body bags into the back of a van. Guillaume is looking on, confused and distraught. And as the van pulls away, we see the two women walk off down the road. The prison, I believe, was the other way. So where are they headed?
I is for Isolation. Uncle Émile’s sugar shack, much to Victoria’s relief (and Flo’s dismay), is in a wooded area off a dirt road, in the tiny Québec town of Saint-Antoine-sur-Richelieu (pop. 1,659). As Vic reassures Flo, “There’s a restaurant here.” Much of the film’s action takes place either in the woods or on the path just alongside those woods. Interestingly, the sugar shack is one of several other locales in Côté’s recent films that are characterized by being tucked away from the larger world. And, unlike Flo, other Côté protagonists seem to covet this distance from urban Canada, from the prying eyes of others, and from more conventional ways of living. Côté’s semi-documentary film Carcasses (2009) centres on a lone scrapper/collector (Jean-Paul Colmor) who dwells in an overstuffed cabin, pulling cars and machines apart and fabricating his own off-the-grid existence. (In some respects, he is a distant cousin to Jake Williams from Ben Rivers’ Two Years at Sea .) Similarly, in Côté’s most recent fiction film Curling (2010), father J-F (Emmanuel Bilodeau) and his daughter (Philomène Bilodeau) live in a modest ranch house miles from anyone else, all the better for J-F to keep the girl away from worldly influence (and conceal his own secrets). Even Côté’s debut, Les états nordiques (2005), which is ultimately about a son discovering community following the death of his mother, drives the man into a small, tucked-away town. There is a particular tradition in Canadian art of seeking both solace and identity in vast, empty nature. The paintings of the Group of Seven emphasized this trek into the wilderness as endemic to the national character. However, Québecers have sometimes looked upon this trope with a degree of irony, they being the nagging itch at the core of any broader notion of Canadianess. Isolation is a promise that seldom delivers, and in Côté’s cinema, the desire to return to the land is a fundamental repression of social contradictions. As Freud teaches us, the repressed always returns with a vengeance.
J is for Jackie. “You have nothing to do with this,” Jackie tells Victoria, who has fallen victim to an unfathomably violent scheme designed primarily to punish Flo. “But I am a brute.” There is no clear explanation for the sudden appearance of Jackie, first outside the sugar shack at the side of the road, posing as Marina the flirty waterworks employee/gardening enthusiast, then eventually as the avenging demon from Flo’s unspecified past. As I note above, we can presume that she had been trailing Flo for quite a long time; the Tarantino-level acts of sadism Jackie perpetrates are very much in keeping with an obsessive (wo)manhunt. At the same time, Côté works to keep Jackie and her mostly silent assistant (Ramon Cespedes) functioning in the film as total free radicals. We know nothing about them, apart from the fact that Jackie seems to think Flo double-crossed her, and that Flo having done hard time does not represent adequate payback. Côté’s editing scheme, courtesy of Nicolas Roy (with whom the director worked on Bestiaire and Curling), tends to introduce Jackie with the suddenness of magic. Near the start of the final act, Vic, Flo, and Guillaume’s day trip is interrupted by an unmotivated edit of Jackie swinging on Vic’s hammock in the woods. And earlier, when we meet “Marina,” her benign first scene with Victoria discussing fertilizer is cut short with a shock-edit to a close-up of Nicolas Smith’s bulging, angry face. Jackie, then, is fashioned in the image of The Night of the Hunter’s Harry Powell, Cape Fear’s Max Cady, or No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh: embodiments of fury and nihilism that require no convincing motivation.
K is for Kid Brother. The very next day following Victoria’s release, she receives her first visit from Guillaume, her parole officer. He looks to be at least 35 years her junior, and his fastidious demeanour—pressed polo shirt, tight jeans, shaved head, sculpted facial hair, ever-present clipboard—instantly gives a very distinct impression. He is not a particularly seasoned officer, and as such is both a stickler for rules and, at first, a rather rote dispenser of official wisdom. “Take it step by step,” he tells Victoria. “You need to find hobbies, get out more,” etc. Naturally, the sardonic Vic and Flo take a certain delight in toying with this bureaucratic junior-achiever, mocking his officious concern and his stiff accordance with protocol. (For example, he dodges virtually every personal question Vic asks him, no matter how innocuous. “I ask the questions.”) As they are forced to spend more time with him, they discover a few things. First, Guillaume is a reasonably good sport, taking their teasing in stride, at least until Flo tries to get him to climb in a dumpster. Second, compared to the other men in their lives, Guillaume is pretty harmless, and actually does care about helping Victoria make it on the outside. Also, unlike the jealous, irritable Vic, Flo successfully picks up on the fact that Guillaume is gay. (The only personal information he ever divulges is to tell Flo that, yes, he has a boyfriend.) Even after he takes the ladies on a comically dull day trip to the aquarium and a train museum, they don’t let up on the teasing, but their affection for him is as firmly established as their antipathy toward most everyone else.
L is for Life Sentence. “Are you going to be coming around forever?” Flo asks Guillaume. At this point the parole officer explains that Victoria’s release is indeed highly conditional, as she received a life sentence. Côté drops this detail without offering any background, but it goes a long way toward explaining several key details of Vic+Flo’s plot. We can now piece together why Victoria is surprised to find Émile in a state of paralysis at the sugar shack, and why her reunion with her younger brother Yvon (Guy Thauvette) is bittersweet, the implication being that he never expected to see her again and that, despite his genuine affection for her, he intends to go on living the flashy, cars-and-girls existence he has built in her absence—a lifestyle that hasn’t got much room for an older sister in it. But most importantly, Guillaume’s mention of the life sentence seems at odds with the obvious concern he feels for his legal charge. She must have done something horrible, and yet Guillaume regards her with unnecessary solicitude and, eventually, admits to Flo in private that Vic reminds him of his mother. Was she wrongly convicted? Did she kill a man who battered her, or an abusive father? Was she a political prisoner? It is clear that there is more to Vic’s crime(s) than meets the eye, and that whatever she did, Côté wants it understood to be indicative of a frozen moment in history. Like Jackie, but in a very different register, Victoria is another inexplicable emanation from the unconscious.
M is for Maple Syrup. As a non-Canadian, I was admittedly confused by Vic+Flo’s reference to Émile’s place as the “sugar shack.” Granted, I could tell it was supposed to be a business of some sort, with the vending machines, jukebox, and random assembly of dining hall tables and chairs, but my only previous acquaintance with the term “sugar shack” was from the song by Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs from 1963. (“There’s a crazy little shack beyond the tracks…”) So I learned something. “Sugar shacks” are rural tourist attractions and small-town dancehalls, mainly centred on the artisanal production of maple syrup. Along with the bottled syrup, the proprietors usually sell maple candy and other sweets. Sometimes they operate a diner out of the shack, the menu of course focusing on breakfast and lunch items that go well with the syrup. Whether Côté intended for this bit of local colour to have any greater significance is an open question. Victoria is gently encouraged, by both Guillaume and Jackie (as “Marina”), to reopen the sugar shack as a post-prison activity, as though all her sour disposition needed was a sweet sucrose infusion. But more broadly, the space of the sugar shack, historically, is one designed to bring the community together and to encourage those passing through to stop. Victoria wants to occupy this space as her own, not to be a charming hostess but to live in peace as a misanthrope. This is something that is difficult even for Flo to understand. And, as Côté shows us, being left alone proves almost impossible to achieve. From prison to the forests of Québec (and from Bestiaire to Vic+Flo), we find that this fairy tale has a rather dour (not to say Grimm) moral. If there’s always someone who can’t resist poking a bear in the zoo, then that someone is even more intent on trapping that bear in the woods.