Writer-director Kim Nguyen has never been conservative in his creative choices. The Montreal-born, Concordia graduate’s recent films have taken him to shooting locations in Tunisia (La Cité) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (War Witch). Historical drama, horror, and magic realism are just a few of the genres Nguyen has dipped his toes into over the course of his diverse œvre. With his most recent film and fourth full length offering, Two Lovers and a Bear, Nguyen takes his versatile skill set as far north as possible.
The premise is somewhat familiar—two attractive, white heterosexual people fall in love while simultaneously fighting internal demons brought on by dark pasts; however, in the estranged setting, and with the help of some interesting narrative twists, Nguyen draws out new life and beauty in an otherwise traditional plot. The aforementioned heterosexual white couple is the pairing of Roman—an exemplary, volatile performance from Dane DeHaan—and Lucy—Tatiana Maslany of Orphan Black fame. Their mental anguish stems from the persistent memories of abuse at the hands of their fathers.
The aptly named town of Apex, Nunavut—accessible only via plane—serves as an ideal destination for the two traumatized lovers to escape—as far removed from civilization and memory as possible. As the couple navigates through some seriously frightening screaming matches, Roman’s sporadic alcoholism, and the spectres of—mostly—Lucy’s past, it is made clear that, try as they might, they can never run from their painful memories.
Nguyen furnishes this complicated romance with grandiose widescreen shots of the aurora borealis. The daunting expanse of the Arctic tundra particularly comes through in the overhead tracking shots of Roman and Lucy on an epic snowmobile journey. One feels the precariousness of life in conditions such as these. Negative forty-degree weather lurks outside every door, and in the background of every scene lies ice as far as the eye can see. The lovers’ explosive relationship is heightened by the innately tense nature of the land.
One particularly notable scene is the close-up of Lucy huddled in a makeshift igloo, breathing in and out rhythmically, intercut with a shot of a rock face surreally pulsing up and down, synchronized with the sound of her breath. The cold becomes a character in moments such as these; its constant threat feels inescapable.
Shooting mostly outdoors in an expansive, flat landscape, Nguyen uses the relative smallness of the main characters to the advantage of the narrative. As they race further and further from the reaches of civilization, the Arctic feels uncaring, and their neverending quest away from their memories becomes futile.
While the barren setting does put our characters in a unique position for self-exploration, the film’s representation of this locale is somewhat whitewashed. Despite the couple’s narrative placement within an Inuit community, local indigenous inhabitants of the land are limited to extra roles with little to no contribution to the story arc. The Inuit locals are portrayed merely as part of the landscape, which is disappointing considering that 84 per cent of Nunavut’s population is Inuit. A missed opportunity to bring attention to one of Canada’s most under-represented indigenous groups, Two Lovers and a Bear could certainly have benefited from a more honest and representative portrayal of life in Nunavut.
Despite the flaws in Kim Nguyen’s Two Lovers and a Bear, the film manages to find beauty in its story of two lost souls searching for meaning at the edge of the world. The methods with which it explores the dark psyches of Roman and Lucy, and how they affect their unique relationship, are often captivating. Although occasionally melodramatic in their turbulent relationship, the couple’s actions never stretch beyond belief due to Nguyen’s thorough exploration of internalized abuse. What really separates Nguyen’s latest from like-minded romances is the way he uses his setting to compound the inner turmoil of his two main characters. While Two Lovers and a Bear unfortunately doesn’t tread much new ground, it’s gorgeous rendering of Nunavut makes this indie romance well worth the price of admission.