Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (Vic + Flo ont vu un ours) (Denis Côté – Canada) 95 minutes
Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian (Arnaud Desplechin – France/USA) 117 minutes
Tip Top (Serge Bozon – France/Luxembourg) 106 minutes
Quebecois director Denis Côté’s second film this year (after the animal documentary, Bestiaire, which I reviewed back in March) is elliptic and oneiric, like much of his work so far. The film starts with Victoria (Pierrette Robitaille), released from prison at the age of 61 in rural Quebec, after serving a life sentence. Needing to be assigned a residence by her parole officer (Marc-André Grondin), she moves in with an elderly paraplegic uncle, who is being cared for by neighbours that are wary of Victoria’s arrival. Convinced of her fecklessness, they soon take the uncle to their own home. She also has a wealthy brother who turns up on her first day, but is told mockingly by Victoria, ‘I know you’re never going to come here again’. Victoria is joined a few days later by Florence (French actress Romane Bohringer, gamefully adopting an Arcadian accent), a jail friend and part-time lover. The parole officer Guillaume warns them they are in violation of Victoria’s parole conditions by consorting but he indulges them anyway, when he realises Florence is not such a bad influence.
Or at least not until a woman purporting to work for the municipality (Robert Lepage regular Marie Brassard) starts hanging around the property with a menacing sidekick (Ramon Cespedes). She is a former acquaintance of Florence, who seems to have crossed her in some undefined way in the past, and they kidnap Flo one day and break her legs. The film continues in a relatively light-hearted convalescent mode, as Guillaume warms to the prickly pair. But the relationship is under strain already by Florence’s preference for city life and her desire to go out and meet people (men included); Victoria’s tolerance for mankind is worn down by her years in jail and she snaps ‘what do I want with other people at my age?’
The menace lurking in the background never quite recedes though and the savagery hinted at in the title (there never is actually a bear glimpsed throughout the 95 minutes) underskirts a film that is, on the face of it, melancholy and gentle. Côté is a fine gauger of mood and sentiment and elegantly employs pans and dissolves to move from one time scale to another. Vic + Flo Saw a Bear is an unassuming film that consistently strikes the right tone. It is a bit surprising a relatively modest film took the Silver Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival but it was nonetheless a deserving award.
Arnaud Despechin, so impressive in his wide-canvas ensemble pieces in his native France, misfires badly in his first American film. Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian (whoever green-lit that clunking title is obviously too big to fire) recounts the real-life post-war encounter between a Blackfoot Indian, Jimmy Picard (Benicio del Toro) and the Hungarian-born French anthropologist Georges Devereux – né György Dobó (Mathieu Amalric) during therapy at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. Picard is suffering from hallucinations after injuring himself during the war (none too gloriously, by drunkenly falling out the back of a truck); no doctors can find anything wrong with him and Devereux, then untrained as a psychotherapist, is called in because of his expertise with Native Americans, having lived with the Mohave for two years.
Adapting Dreams and Reality, Devereux’s book documenting the case, has been an ambition for Desplechin for over two decades. It is all the more mystifying then that the resultant film is so slipshod and jejune. We take it on faith the magnitude of the subject – Karl Menninger (Larry Pine) and Devereux’s New York lover Madeleine are full of praise for the maverick anthropologist, but, apart from conducting therapy while ailing from heavy flu, we see nothing exceptional about him. One would expect race, class and historical dispossession to figure in the case of Picard but these are only fleetingly touched upon. His Native American background in the film appears to function only a vehicle for the self-congratulating pride in a sensitive, enlightened European bettering his American counterparts in treatment of a minority subject.
The film fails on a technical level too. Even though Desplechin got US film critic Kent Jones on board to write, the dialogue is hokey and flat, something that was a problem with his previous English-language film Esther Kahn (1999). The performances are also jarringly unfocussed – Amalric’s Devereux is a mincing, shambling eccentric who fails utterly to convey any sense of a troubled past (he is Jewish and this is just three years after the end of the war); del Toro, usually so good, is reduced to the clichéd mannerisms of two categories of ‘quality’ screen-acting – the ethnic minority and the disabled. That two good actors should be so adrift can only be down to deficiencies in Desplechin’s direction. You get the sense the Frenchman was going for his own attempt at the wide-scale Oscar season Hollywood film. Jimmy P is a sorry mess though, and barely passes muster as a TV movie.
Serge Bozon’s fourth film relocates Welsh writer David Craig/James Tucker’s 2006 crime novel to the unlovely Lille suburb of Villeneuve-d’Ascq. It has all the quirks of Bozon’s previous film La France, in which Sylvie Testud passes as a man in uniform during World War I in search of her brother, and then some. Isabelle Huppert and Sandrine Kiberlain – together in possession of 90% of the freckles in French cinema – play two Internal Affairs cops investigating possible police involvement in the murder of an informer. They are met with hostility by the police they are investigating but one detective, Robert Mendès (François Damiens) comes round to their point of view when he realises his superiors could indeed be implicated.
Tip Top is laced with burlesque and intentionally stilted, choreographed acting. It’s underlit palette and fondness for interesting faces and obscure old rock and roll (in this case Turkish group 3 Hürel’s ‘Ve Ölüm’) recalls Aki Kaurismäki and the film occasionally succeeds in this vein. The lead actresses are breezy but awkward in their roles as two cops ill at ease with another and much of the world besides. The film incorporates into the plot Algerian police officers who fled their country during the Civil War, under threat of reprisals from Islamists, but, like the original murder, this is rarely fleshed out to any sufficient degree and winds up looking like window dressing. It’s a shame as Tip Top does take a genuinely different tack to much contemporary French cinema. Ultimately though the film is pretty bloodless, smothered by the quirks and peculiarities; by the time a lame joke about tourists being given an open-top bus tour of Villeneuve-d’Ascq, founded 1975, is dragged out over five minutes, you really have had enough.