'Nothing but trouble': An emerging filmmaker celebrates Denis Côté's fearless 'Vic + Flo'
In honour of National Canadian Film Day, Ashley McKenzie pens a love letter to Côté's work
This is part of a series of essays by Canadian filmmakers on the homegrown cinema that influenced them, in honour of National Canadian Film Day.
I saw Denis Côté's Vic + Flo Saw a Bear in Halifax during the Atlantic Film Festival in fall 2013. It's rare to see a Canadian film on the big screen, and the experience was made increasingly rare because the film destabilized me. Films in this country don't often do that. Generally Canadian feature films — that I get to see at least — have a prerogative to please. They're polite-mannered, risking very little and so their impact is negligible. Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, however, is provocatively irreverent and cruel.
Victoria and Florence are lesbian ex-cons who tuck themselves away in a defunct sugar shack in the backwoods of Quebec. Despite urgings from a parole officer, they have no aim to start up the maple syrup operation or become "part of society" — they scoff at the suggestion. It's not part of their unkempt, cool denim style. The women of Vic + Flo Saw a Bear are uncompromising. They're queer. They're middle-aged. They're hard-boiled and sharp-tongued. They let it all hang out (no bras were worn in the making of this movie). They have agency and do questionable things.
Vic and Flo are also playful and childlike. Vic is insecure and wants to coddle Flo, but Flo is more of a skittish and unpredictable creature. They reek of fear and vulnerability in ways that are painful to watch and secretly self-affirming. They sit and stand with their legs open wide, taking up space. These are female characters I rarely see in Canadian cinema. I watch them and love their desperate charm. A bug-eyed and bigoted townsperson in the film has Vic and Flo pegged early on: "I knew those two sluts would be nothing but trouble."
In the winter season of the Cape Breton Island Film Series, I coerced the series programmer to bring in Vic + Flo Saw a Bear. He agreed because there's a small but loyal pocket of French speakers who always show up for French language films. I watched the movie a second time alongside one of my best friends. She has jet black hair, tattoos on her arms, and when the lights went up in the theatre, she locked eyes with me and nodded convincingly, indicating she's been affirmed. We were the teenagers in our small towns that listened to the Church Mice's "Babe We're Not Part of Society" and wrote high school essays on women in Lars Von Trier movies. Years can easily go by living in Sydney without us getting to experience art that excites us.
We sat and soaked up the creative nourishment from Vic + Flo that would help us stand the gaff another year in Cape Breton. It's what our grandparents did and our parents after them, and it's the kind of coping skill you inherit in a so-called "have not" part of the country. The theatre was nearly empty when we started to rustle. I eavesdropped on the remaining stragglers, knowing I'd take heat for any backlash. Two older women seated behind us were shuffling out of their aisle, draped with large purses, jackets, rain caps and popcorn bags. This appeared to be a rare social outing for them (is this what my friend and I will be like in 30 years if we stay here?). "That's the worst movie I've ever seen," one commented to the other. Her friend issued an affirming nod: "Yes, just terrible. Why would they make us watch that?"
The women of Vic + Flo Saw a Bear are uncompromising. They're queer. They're middle-aged. They're hard-boiled and sharp-tongued.- Filmmaker Ashley McKenzie
Last month, I flew across the country to Vancouver when my first feature Werewolf was screening at the Port Moody Film Festival. I was invited to present my favourite Canadian film in a cinema salon that opened the festival. The audience, like Sydney, was mostly of an older generation. I positioned Vic + Flo in the context of classic Hollywood heroines and villains, seeing the film as a series of standoffs between characters who posture not unlike Western gun-slinger Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar (1954). Côté keeps sex in the subtext in a way that makes scenes thick with tension — my favourite example is when a mysterious neighbour, Jackie, drives her ATV on the sugar shack property and flirts with Victoria, evoking this banter between Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity (1944). The audience found their own entry points, and conversation focused on the film's grisly final chapter. I was told the last words uttered in Vic + Flo are the same as Jesus' final words dying on the cross: "It's over." I'm pleased.
To find National Canadian Film Day events near you, visit their website.