You will not be shocked to read that at the heart of Kim Nguyen’s interesting if inconsistent new film is a story involving two lovers, and a bear. But you might be surprised to discover what form that story takes. Despite its small-town location, and the swelling menace that saturates the screen when the eponymous ursine is first revealed, this is sadly not Jaws meets Grizzly Man. Instead it’s more a cross between Dr. Dolittle & The Revenant; part mystical reverie about running away from your problems, and part polemic against mankind’s polluting nature.
We open on an awe-inspiring landscape of wintry wonder, with a pair of Ski-Doos dashing through the snow; so agile they could be gliding on air. At the controls are Roman (Dane DeHaan) and Lucy (Tatiana Maslany) – our two “lovers”. They live on top of the world, literally, in a close-knit community near the North Pole. And yet, despite the breath-taking backdrops and beauty of the Northern Lights, both believe themselves to be trapped in a colourless existence where the roads lead to nowhere.
Director Kim Nguyen’s previous film, War Witch, proved him to be an impressively unpredictable filmmaker, and Two Lovers And A Bear does little to sully that reputation. Both Roman and Lucy have troubles from which they are unable to escape; he has memories lurking in the shadow of his subconscious that he drinks to forget about; she has fearful visions of a face from her childhood that she cannot outrun, no matter how hard she tries. But in lieu of confronting their past, however, this couple decide to take a leap of faith and head off into the wilderness, searching for inner peace.
Nguyen’s ambitious approach juxtaposes various tonal shifts. His set-up is slow & shivery, the eerie notes of Jesse Zubot’s slithering score crafting an atmosphere of psychological intimidation that perfectly amplifies the mental isolation of the two leads. Once they head out into the ether of this snowy environment though, the mood swings towards a more spiritual tenor; the transcendent scenery, shot with a crisp grandeur by DP Nicolas Bolduc, imbued with a healing energy and spiritual warmth – an aura augmented by the arrival of a polar bear (voiced with worldly acuity by Gordon Pinsent) who can communicate with Roman, an early left-field reveal that sits so well in a film of such unique conception.
On occasion these artistic impressions are met with an icy reception – an extended visit to an underground military bunker, in which the whole film briefly transforms into The Chernobyl Diaries, is particularly misguided. As is the power of love narrative thrust that helps shape the conclusion; although that’s more down to the performances of Maslany & DeHaan – who lack both chemistry and a sexual spark when together, and individually struggle to carry many of the script’s weightier moments.
What distracts from such stumbles is the strength of Nguyen himself, who carefully compounds the plot with an ecological subtext – the splendour of the setting hauntingly contrasted with the squalor and debris of man’s mess, seen piled high alongside the settlement’s makeshift paths. As a film it’s a chilly curiosity, but it’s certainly an oddly compelling one.
Director: Kim Nguyen
Stars: Tatiana Maslany, Dane DeHaan, Gordon Pinsent
Runtime: 96 mins