Having produced seven features and two shorts in a mere eight years, Quebecois filmmaker and former film critic Denis Côté has rapidly established himself as a fickle auteur whose signature is predicated upon overturning conventions and upsetting expectations. Working hastily as a matter of principle, he has annually rolled out a film that significantly revises his style while still preserving what makes his work unmistakably his. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t continuities across his oeuvre: his films are littered with solitary outsiders (such as in his last fiction feature, 2010’s Curling) and intelligently assembled glimpses of contemporary society’s unsettling and under-scrutinized byproducts (as with the frigid, unnatural menagerie in his last doc, Bestiaire, from 2012). His latest, Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, once again finds Côté attempting to take his artistry in new directions while also making room for the thematic and aesthetic concerns he has obsessively pursued since his debut, Drifting States (05).

Vic + Flo Saw a Bear

The film opens with the arrival of sixty-something Vic (Pierrette Robitaille) at her new residence, her indisposed uncle’s inoperative sugar shack located in the densely forested boondocks of Quebec. Vic, it turns out, is free on parole from what was apparently a life sentence. (Spoiler: we never learn what she did to wind up in the joint.) Her parole officer, Guillaume (Marc-André Grondin), is a highly patient but strict customer who alternates between trusting her and sternly cracking down on her various half-truths and ex-con mishegas. Vic’s lover, Flo (Romane Bohringer), first appears as a giggling, writhing body beneath the covers with Vic—prison lovers reunited on the outside and picking up where they left off, though with radically different scenery. (Another spoiler: the reason for Flo’s incarceration is similarly elided, although her past makes its presence felt in a big way soon enough.)

Côté is not known for his prowess as a storyteller, but there are several compelling plotlines woven into the fabric of Vic + Flo: ornery Vic’s relationships with her uncle’s shirtless teenage caretaker (Pier-Luc Funk), who’s transfixed by his RC helicopter, and the boy’s scowling hulk of a father (Olivier Aubin wearing, yes, a Canadian tuxedo); restless Flo’s two-timing with various johns at the local dive; Vic and Flo’s half-assed investigations into Guillaume’s sexual orientation; and much more.

Vic+Flo Saw a Bear

The plot quietly turns on a dime when Marina (Marie Brassard) arrives on the scene. Initially, she’s just a weird stranger asking permission to ride her ATV on Vic’s uncle’s property in exchange for gardening lessons. But the revelation of Marina’s true identity (a slow-burner that Côté unfolds with perverse patience) proves a means for the director to take the narrative somewhere else entirely, swapping the slightly offbeat, deadpan humor of the first half for a provocative reworking of the crime film tropes he appropriated in his earlier All That She Wants (08). Vic and Flo hurtle toward fates consonant with the lives they led before jail, and Côté reservedly unravels the narrative tapestry before abruptly tearing it to shreds.

The violence that fuels the film’s staggering gear-change is graphic, but its apparent severity is a function of its incongruity relative to everything preceding it. Far from trafficking in brutality for brutality’s sake, Côté plays it in a self-consciously sophisticated way but also makes no effort to conceal his giddiness about eliciting intensely visceral responses. With its rigorous visual style (strongly frontal medium-wide shots; long takes; mildly miraculous tracking shots; a palette consisting of blown-out whites and ice-cold blues) and its often Sphinx-like cast, Vic + Flo makes for a strange and affecting experience, albeit one that’s more admirable than likable. Even so, Côté and his collaborators have crafted an astounding movie that doesn’t care about being adored but that certainly demands to be dealt with.

Vic + Flo Saw a Bear opens February 7 at Anthology Film Archives.