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The Berlinale Blog: Women in love

Today’s competition films did us a favour – two, actually: upping the quality ante, they also presented three scenarios that cry out for comparison. Eve Lucas examines Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, Gloria and The Nun for traces of feminist assertiveness.

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“Vic + Flo Saw a Bear”

Of the three competition films presented on the third full day of screenings, it’s Canadian experimental filmmaker Denis Côté’s Vic + Flo Saw a Bear that stands out as a perfectly coherent albeit complex work, making sense without making concessions to mainstream cinematic idiom.

Joining 61-year-old Vic (Pierrette Robitaille) at a bus stop somewhere in Canada, we follow her to a forest cabin, where she re-introduces herself to her semi-paralyzed uncle and settles in to care for him. Her brother visits and gives her money, a mysterious gardener encourages her to set up a small vegetable plot, and she’s joined by her girlfriend Flo (Romane Bohringer). Guillaume, the parole officer, pops in now and then to check on his charge and develops platonic affections for Vic and Flo. All this information is presented as an evolution, awaiting our input, construction and interpretation. Côté’s amalgam of expressive forms works with staged shots of sparse interiors and arboreal landscape, using montage, dialogue and music to create a diffuse cinematographic syntax for a complex matrix of relationships. Whatever it is that Vic and Flo see – and the ‘bear’ is just a pars pro toto for all manner of likely strangeness – we see it through and with them: the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ come together in a language that insists upon hard-won difference and the right of these two women to claim otherness as uniqueness, and individuality as identity. Represented last year with Bestiaire in Forum, Côté’s promotion to the Competition is a long-awaited signal that the Berlinale is reasserting its right to startle and engage audiences with experimental films deemed worthy of wide public exposure.

The exposition of Chilean director Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria starts conventionally with the titular figure (Paulina Garcia) sitting at a singles bar for the over 50s where she’s hoping to stave off loneliness through an encounter with whichever silver-haired fox shows an interest/proves suitable. Divorced and with a largely tangential relationship to her daughter and son, Gloria defines herself through her ability to attract. Paulina Garcia’s onscreen charisma ensures that there’s no shortage of hopefuls and it’s with Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández) that a long-term relationship finally seems possible.

Sorting the baggage that both Gloria and Rodolfo bring to the table is a process complicated by old allegiances, petty vanities and naïve enthusiasms. Garcia in particular gives a nuanced performance that alternates between openhearted neediness and a growing awareness that neediness is a state that signals one need above all: that of the male gaze. One scene in particular, involving Gloria, Rodolfo and Gloria’s former husband, is a minefield of attention-seeking role-playing beyond which Gloria must move if she’s ever to achieve singularity. The titular song will encourage viewers to anticipate a happy ending – but don’t get too comfy. The process is a lengthy one (perhaps overly so) and the rewards promise just as many evenings on the couch as the dance floor.

The rewards of Guillaume Nicloux’ The Nun (La Religieuse), based on the classic novel by 18th century French enlightenment novelist-academic Denis Diderot, are less obvious still – and for the wrong reasons. The story of Suzanne, forced to take the veil against her will to expiate the extra-marital dalliance from which she issued, was filmed in 1966 by Jacques Rivette, temporarily banned by the French government and nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Nicloux’ version attempts unsuccessfully to marry Diderot’s essentially didactic ruse with Rivette’s much darker version. But reconciling extremes can leave the middle ground open to all manner of mischief as Suzanne struggles to claim her own life from three Mother Superiors variously attempting to subjugate her with goodness, sadism and ecstatically fumbled visions of sisterhood. As the last of these three, Isabelle Huppert’s appearance marks a return to the strange career choices of last year’s Captive, which Pauline Etienne’s driven performance only just manages to outshine.