Ignore the dubious title, Two Lovers and a Bear, from War Witch director Kim Nguyen, is a heartfelt, often heart-wrenching tale of, well, two lovers who make a treacherous journey across an icy tundra. There’s also a bear. Who talks. And may be a god. Needless to say, it’s not your typical romance.
Chronicle’s Dane DeHaan and Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany star as Roman and Lucy – a couple who live in the aptly-named Apex, a tiny town near the North Pole that’s so remote it’s only accessible by plane and costs $300 to have two bottles of whiskey delivered. Daddy issues drove both of them to absolute isolation, the kindred spirits finding solace in each other’s arms, but still suffering from the demons of their past. They icefish, ride snowmobiles and live simple lives in the frozen north, but when Lucy is accepted into university back on the mainland the pair are forced to make the hazardous journey south, back to civilisation.
Wondering where the bear comes in? That’s a little harder to explain. Lucy suffers from hallucinations – a man stalking her at every turn. When Roman starts talking to a bear, played with remarkable dexterity by a real polar bear (Agee) and voiced in an amusingly wry manner by Away From Her’s Gordon Pinsent, you’re inclined to believe that Roman is suffering from similar visions. But in a lovely magical realist touch it’s made clear that Roman really is conversing with a sarcastic beast who bugs him for frozen fish and pops up in the most unexpected places. The title of the film also comes from a so-bad-it’s-good joke that an infectiously giggly Lucy tells in one of Two Lovers’ sweetest and most touchingly human moments.
It’s a curious concoction of a film. For the first half it’s a fairly conventional troubled twentysomethings romance, with Roman driven to drink and threats of suicide after Lucy announces her intention to leave. DeHaan and Maslany elevate these scenes well above their been-there-done-that potential with a pair of raw and honest performances that genuinely sell their unbreakable bond. When the lovebirds embark on their epic journey south the film takes on a survival movie feel, transforming into 127 Hours when Roman takes a tumble and gets his leg caught in a crevasse. There’s even a left turn into horror as the pair take shelter from a blizzard in an abandoned military base, navigating the creepy concrete corridors with underpowered head torches, the wind creating the illusion (or is it?) that they’re not alone. This constant gear change doesn’t always work, but it’s a film that could never be accused of doing what's expected.
DeHaan and Maslany are both superb, pushed to emotional extremes by their own troubles and the harsh environment, they’re also believable as a couple truly, madly, deeply in love. As far as Lucy and Roman are concerned, they’re the only two people in the world, a fact Nguyen and cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc make explicit by placing them in a series of breathtakingly barren polar vistas. The alien environments also play host to some unsettling sights, including a herd of deer half submerged in a frozen lake after falling to their deaths. It’s this willingness to go to darker places that sets Two Lovers and a Bear apart – despite the romance there’s a realism and a brutality to the world that Nguyen doesn’t shy away from, landing gut punches that won’t soon be forgotten.