Two Lovers and a Bear
Directed by: Kim Nguyen.
Written by: Kim Nguyen.
Starring: Tatiana Maslany (Lucy), Dane DeHaan (Roman), Gordon Pinsent (Bear's Voice), John Ralston (Lucy's Father), Johnny Issaluk (Charlie), Joseph Nakogee (Peter), Kakki Peter (Sheriff John Tovok), Jennifer Soucie (Johanna).
Kim Nguyen’s Two Lovers and a Bear is that odd film that is both too strange and yet not strange enough. There are surreal moments in the film, and yet as a writer and director, Nguyen tries to ground those moments in his characters psyches – to explain the strangeness he is showing. This undercuts those moments, that don’t haunt us the way they should – and also takes screen time away from proper character development. As the title implies, the film is about two lovers – and at first one seems to go insane, and then get almost instantly better, then the other goes insane, and never really gets better – dragging the other character, and the movie along with them. The problem is that we never really do get to know either character – the film is too ambiguous in some sense, and then explains other things to death. It’s an interesting and ambitious film – but one that doesn’t really work.
The film takes place in the Canadian arctic. Lucy (Tatiana Maslany) is dating Roman (Dane DeHaan) – and both seem fairly happy in their relative isolation. It is Lucy who threatens this balance – as she gets into school “down south” – and wants to go, which either means she leaves Roman behind, or he abandons his life to go with her (something he says he will not do). Roman’s transition from depressed to possibly suicidal and insane – and then back again – is perhaps the biggest single problem with the movie. One scene he’s literally talking to a bear - something he does repeatedly throughout the film – and is oddly the one thing the movie never bothers to explain (is it a sign of his delusion, or can he really do it – oddly, the movie seems to imply both). Roman is eventually institutionalized – but then Lucy, who up until this point has seemed fairly normal – throws away everything she’s worked for to come and get him. They then decide to go South together – but having no money to fly, get on their snow mobiles and head out on what is almost a suicide mission. It’s on the trip that the full extent of Lucy’s own mental problems come out.
Nguyen’s last film – Rebelle (War Witch) was nominated for the Best Foreign Language film Oscar, and was, honestly, more effective at blending together the real world of the lead character, and the perhaps spiritual world that she was able to see – either because she had special skills, or because she was delusional. While that film was about child soldiers in Africa, and this one is a story of two lovers in the arctic, they are closer together then they appear – as both films include aspects that cannot easily be explained away. But while War Witch was effective in blending these elements together, Two Lovers and a Bear is not. Perhaps it’s because this time, Nguyen has two lead characters, both of whom are experiencing things outside the realm of normalcy – Roman with his talking to bears, and Lucy with the visions of her abusive, now deceased, father. Neither character has quite enough room to develop, because Nguyen spends time first with one, then the other – and when one character is experiencing the delusions, the other seems perfectly normal. By the time we reach the end – where the characters seem to, at least on some level, be sharing a delusion, Nguyen hasn’t properly set this up.
The two lead actors do the best they can with the material they have – it’s more an issue of writing than performing, which gives us the sense of whiplash between the characters. Lucy appears completely normal – right up until she isn’t anymore – and Maslany excels at those scenes, but isn’t able to sell the transformation. DeHaan is somewhat shakier – he’s really the lead here – because of how often he has to go back and forth.
There are things to recommend Two Lovers and a Bear though. Visually, the film is quite good – giving us a unique view of the arctic we usually do not see, particularly the isolation the characters feel. There is one sequence – in an abandoned military facility – that seems to be pointing in a direction the film doesn’t really go (namely, horror), that is effectively creepy. But mainly, the film doesn’t really work, because the two leads at the core of the movie don’t ever seem believable. By the time we get to the end – and there are more false endings to this film than anything since Return of the King – I felt like the film had completely lost sight of its goals. Is what the two leads do romantic in a grand, delusional way – or simply stupid? I don’t think even the movie knows for sure.