Saturday, January 11, 2014

"I like to build something up and then destroy it": Denis Côté on Vic + Flo Saw a Bear

Victoria (Pierrette Robitaille) goes straight to her uncle’s old sugar shack when she gets out of the pen. She was given a life sentence for some unspecified crime, so one supposes she’s lucky to be free to start over in some quiet place tucked away from the world at the age of 61. “I’m old enough to know that I hate people,” she says, though the truth is she’s good at connecting with them one on one: the shirtless adolescent who’s been taking care of her catatonic uncle; the young parole officer who seems to genuinely want the best for her; the strange, dark-haired, flirtatious woman (the great theatre artist Marie Brassard) who arrives and offers to help with the gardening. Post-penal life looks promising for Vic. Flo (Romane Bohringer), her adored girlfriend from prison, has even come to stay, though for her country life is a little too much “like death.” Little does she know that something like death does in fact lay waiting in this place, something from out of the past.

director Denis Côté with his driver

Quebec writer/director/producer Denis Côté’s eighth feature, winner of the Alfred Bauer Prize at last year’s Berlinale, seems at first to be his most conventional, a rural noir with a storyline less elliptical than even Curling, Côté’s 2010 film that almost felt audience-friendly—a film he promptly followed up with the Bestiare, shot entirely in a zoo with a cast comprised of animals. Yet Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, its title recalling both children’s books and a certain masterpiece by Jacques Rivette, is also challenging, albeit in less obvious ways than Bestiare or Côté’s 2009 documentary-fiction hybrid Carcasses. The titular lovers do not fit neatly into progressive notions of how same-sex couples should be portrayed onscreen, yet their relationship strikes me as complex and quite touching at times, while the film’s last act plunges into an unnerving tonal shift. I spoke with Côté last November. 

JB: Where did you grow up?

DC: I was born in a village in New Brunswick, but we moved to a Montréal suburb when I was two. People should think of me as Quebecois.

JB: I ask because I’m interested in the use of rural spaces in your films.

DC: It seems like every time I film the countryside there’s a sense of menace, or that I film nature in an oblique way. I think it’s because I never go there. I don’t have a car or a driver’s license. I’ve never caught a fish. If I go to the countryside it’s to shoot a film. I would never do something in the countryside for fun. For me it’s not a peaceful place. I like to tell stories there because I feel more free. Things can happen more easily. In the woods there’s going to be a maniac. In the lake there’s going to be a monster. When you work in places you’ve never been before it’s great because you see things for the first time. When I did Carcasses, about an old man collecting 4,000 cars on his property, I didn’t stay with the guy for eight months and then take out my camera. I took it out right away.

JB: You want to weave your discoveries into the film.

DC: Yes. My gaze needs to be in discovery mode. Maybe that’s why I shoot the backwoods of Quebec like that. Just for that feeling that something can happen.

JB: Is that why so many of the exteriors in Vic + Flo are photographed from a distance, with a very square frame? So people and things can move in and out? So that something can happen?

DC: I like tableau, but I always make sure there’s a character in it. I’m totally allergic to transition shots, beautiful landscapes, postcards. Things should never be comfortable or beautiful.

JB: Yet there’s lots of beauty in Vic + Flo, especially the two-shots of the title characters. There are really lovely images of these women together, sharing an intimate space.

DC: But it depends on how we use the vocabulary. “Beautiful” is not the same as “precise.” When something is well framed and rigorous we say that’s beautiful cinematography. I would say it’s precise.

JB: Perhaps the word “beautiful” also comes to mind because of the sentiment these images convey. The bond these women share is moving. Theirs is a deep, genuine camaraderie. 

DC: I was working in a really rough environment. That sugar shack is aluminium and grey. Someone told me not to waste my time filming it, because it has no identity or charm. So I knew the location was rough. I knew the events at the end of the film would be rough. I knew I had Pierrette Robitaille. She’s not exactly a beauty queen. I knew I didn’t want to use much make-up. I knew they would talk in a very rough way. So I needed some warmth. I knew in the first scene she would look like a misanthrope, so I needed to find spaces for her to become warmer. I wanted the viewer to become comfortable with these women, even if you wouldn’t want to be friends with them in real life.

JB: I kind of wanted to be friends with them.

DC: That’s the pervert thing about the story. It’s quite ugly, but you need to feel comfortable traveling in it. Right to the end. You might think it twisted, but I was looking for a happy end, for some way to make sure these women would end up together in peace and love, away from society and all its rules. I think I found it, but people get angry with me for what they see as violence against women.

JB: But the film is about women, so if there’s violence it’s probably going to involve women.

DC: I regularly get questioned about whether I’m trying to punish lesbians. People don’t like the way I portray the couple. They think they look too rough. People read it from a moral viewpoint. I worked with a parole officer who explained to me how women meet in jail, creating security couples and networks. They may not be gay per se. She also said that while some women get out of jail and are in a hurry to meet guys, it was very normal for other women to continue living with women after being released, in part because they’ve been away from men for so long. She approved of everything in my script. As for the parole offier being gay, it was more or less accidental. I wanted to close the door between him and Flo. He doesn’t “act” gay, whatever that means. He just says one thing to confirm that he has a boyfriend and that’s it. For me, these are not gay issues.

JB: For me, the more interesting moral or karmic equation has to do with the fact that they’re ex-convicts. We never learn what they were convicted of, but I found myself wondering if Vic, who we know got a life sentence, wonders if she somehow deserves her fate.

DC: I like to work with the present. I never imagine myself filming a flashback. In Curling we had some huge narrative gaps. It was a bit weird. But in this film I think we have everything we need to understand the story. I’m obsessed with society and community. How do we disconnect or reconnect? I like that Vic’s in transition. It allows me to work in the present tense. I’m also interested in fatalism. If you have to get hit by a car, it’s going to happen.

JB: That’s the film noir aspect, no? This idea that destiny is coming to get you.

DC: I had this question about whether I can create this more or less conventional story about these two women and then, bang, it slips into some kind of vengeance tale. Can I do that? I still don’t have the answer. But that was our proposal. Some people are grateful for the ending, some say we lost them with it. I’m more about experimental cinema. I’m more interested in the mechanics of storytelling than in a good story. Can you do this or that? Can we come back here or go over there? It’s not about provocation. It’s about trying things.

JB: I want to back up to something you said about Robitaille. You mentioned that she’s not exactly a great beauty, but when you have her in close-up she radiates this kind of wizened glamour.

DC: Yeah, there’s something there, in her features and her character. Though Pierrette still says that she doesn’t know what she was doing in the movie. Her background is in popular comedy. People think of her as a clown. She still thinks I played a joke on her. Even on the red carpet in Berlin she was looking at me like this was a trick. Of course, it was meant as a challenge. She’s not supposed to be in art cinema. I told her, “Honestly, everything you did before I think is crap. But you have 30 or 40 years of experience that I want to put to work on something else.” Now she’s really proud of the film. She says that people now talk to her as though there was a before and an after. That can be hard to hear when you’re 63.

JB: The other bit of casting I wanted to ask you about was Marie Brassard, whose work I adore. Early in the film, when we first hear the percussive score, especially when it’s just the single drum, I found myself thinking about certain Japanese horror films from the 60s, like Onibaba. And then you see Brassard’s face, which is so masklike in a way that reminded me of Onibaba…

DC: People say she has Asian features.

JB: And she’s playing this character that at times resembles a demon summoned from the underworld.

DC: You pick a person like that to play a bad guy. It’s very simple. We introduce her as this cute, flirtatious thing, talking about gardening, and then she shifts. Again, people were surprised by how we cast her, but it makes perfect sense.

JB: I’m an admirer of her solo theatrical work. The impish stillness of her performance in Vic + Flo seems to draw on something we see in her show The Invisible.

DC: She’s crazy as well.

JB: [Laughs] I’m sure.

DC: She could not remember any lines.

JB: Really?

DC: She’s very dreamy. But I think Jackie is perfect. Again, we’re given minimal information about her, but hopefully we have an active viewer. Vic + Flo is giving you the opportunity to remember that you’re watching a film. I don’t feel good on autopilot. I like to build something up and then destroy it. Maybe that’s why some of the films are in two parts.

JB: I think you share a sensibility with your Toronto-based contemporary Nicolás Pereda. I think he’s drawn to similar strategies, most obviously in Greatest Hits.

DC: I guess we both like hybrid cinema. Maybe we think everything has been made expect for the clashes between fiction and documentary. Maybe Nicolás is like me in that he doesn’t like people to know where he’s coming from. Maybe we just need attention! [Laughs] It’s a very immature impulse, but it can be fun to have people not know what you’re going to do next. I prefer trying over succeeding. So long as there’s at least one person in every audience hating my film, I think this is healthy.

JB: Vic + Flo is full of scenes in which people play games or with toys. They ride gokarts, play pool or horseshoes or with a remote control helicopter. It seems like a way of reminding the audience that storytelling is, in a way, a game.

DC: I’m very afraid of people taking my films too seriously. But I’m also afraid of using the word “play” in interviews. It doesn’t look good when you say you’re playing, either with the audience or with your film.  It doesn’t sound sacred.

JB: Sure, but we could say that Borges was playing a game. We could say Buñuel was playing a game.

DC: I don’t know if I want to say I’m playing with the audience, but I think we have a contract. I’m the master. I’m pulling the strings. I might have a little fun with you. Just trust me. Don’t take it too seriously. There’s a comic book energy flowing through Vic + Flo. Yes, things might get a little dark. But let’s have fun.

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