Montreal filmmaker Kim Nguyen on his northern odyssey

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Tatiana Maslany and Dane DeHaan in Two Lovers and a Bear

Every time I see a movie shot in Northern Canada, I think the same thing: it had to have been worth it to make this movie, considering how harsh and seemingly terrible the filming conditions are. Kim Nguyen’s Two Lovers and a Bear (starring Tatiana Maslany and Dane DeHaan) takes place in Apex, a remote community in Nunavut, and the majority of the film takes place outside.

“You have to feel an obligation to make it, indeed,” says Nguyen. “But you do show up there prepared. For the actors, it wasn’t as difficult as it would’ve been shooting in street clothes at -15 or -20. These are characters who were heading out on an expedition, so I’d say the cold wasn’t as big a deal for Tatiana. There were certainly some risks for the actors’ faces — quite high frostbite risks, in fact. But Tatiana said it, it was way easier to shoot this film than it was to shoot scenes in a miniskirt and stilettos in a Toronto winter.”

Maslany (of Orphan Black fame) stars as Lucy, who lives and works in Apex but dreams of going down south to pursue her studies. Her life up north consists mostly of spending time with her boyfriend Roman (DeHaan) and avoiding their demons. When she gets the news that she has been awarded a scholarship at a school down south, Lucy must deal with the depression that this causes Roman, whose entire life revolves around her. As their time together dwindles, however, their demons threaten to catch up to them.

Kim Nguyen. Photo by Philippe Bossé

Kim Nguyen. Photo by Philippe Bossé

“The basic story of the film had already been written; it’s been 14 years since Roger Frappier came to me with this idea,” explains Nguyen. “About a year after I made Le Marais, Roger brought me this story that was written by Louis Grenier, the founder of Kanuk. I think it’s important to make a film that has a certain pertinence (laughs), but I’ve often said that I think we’ve talked about urbanity in cinema. This idea that we text and we play video games and we don’t talk to each other anymore — that sort of topic has already been explored, in my eyes. I think this film is a reflection of what it’s like right now, and more specifically Iqaluit — Iqaluit is very much of a paradoxical microcosm, and it’s just beautiful to capture that as a filmmaker. It’s a bit like being on a moon base.”

“I also wanted to tell the story of people from the south — I avoid saying that they’re whites, because I don’t like that kind of categorizing,” he continues. “They’re people from the south who get up there and are faced with all of the problems inherent with the north, and it’s sort of through a third party that I wanted to observe, because I felt that the locals weren’t particularly interested in a filmmaker from the south coming up and pointing at their problems without being from there.”

During its festival run, many international outlets have commented on the distinctly Canadian nature of the film; in truth, it’s hard to imagine something more outwardly Canadian-sounding than an anthropomorphic polar bear who speaks with the voice of Canadian great Gordon Pinsent. Yet looking through Nguyen’s filmography, you see two films shot in Quebec, two shot in Africa and only one made in English (though his upcoming film — set partly in Afghanistan, no less — is also in English), which begs the question: what (if any) identity should we assign to this film?

“With hindsight, yes, I’m definitely a Québécois filmmaker and very proud of it,” Nguyen says. “I’m also a Montreal filmmaker, I think, and a Canadian filmmaker. But there really is something rather particular to our oversized egos (laughs). If we’ve managed to make the films we make here in Quebec — and I’m very proud of our output and filmmakers like Xavier (Dolan), Denis (Villeneuve), Jean-Marc (Vallée), Philippe (Falardeau) and Podz, especially Minuit, le soir — it’s because of the teams. We have to give more credit to all of the below-the-line talent. (…) When I travel around the world and see shoots in the States or in Europe, I realize that what we have here are people who are ready to live and die for a project. I have passionate relationships with the people who work on my films. They’re ready to die for them in a metaphorical sense, and we don’t see much of that elsewhere in Canada. Our art director on Two Lovers was very passionate in that same way, but I think that passion is one of the defining traits of our cinema.”

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I bring up the fact that shooting in such a harsh climate affects performances, reducing the actors’ tools to their eyes and the limited movements of their snowsuits. “It’s funny because we did a lot of work shaping the actual suits, adapting them to the characters,” says Nguyen. “It’s true that emotion comes through differently. It’s not exactly pantomime, because we see at least part of their faces and their facial expressions, but it comes through in their expressions.”

It’s difficult to find a throughline linking Nguyen’s films (Le Marais, Truffe, La cité, the Oscar-nominated War Witch and the doc Le nez) except perhaps the presence of magical realism. I ask him if he consciously makes the choice for each film to be thematically and textually different from the others. “It’s funny; after War Witch, I fielded a lot of offers for films about child soldiers coming from around the world,” he explains. “I was very flattered and they were very important subjects, but it was spiritually very hard to make War Witch. I had to accept to do all kinds of things and go all kinds of places, but once I’d done it, I had done and said everything I wanted.”

“It happens often that you’ll get offered something based on the topic that you just covered in your previous film,” he continues. “On the other hand, there are are certain universes or environments that appeal to you. Gregory Hlady, who acted in Le marais, is a guy I continue to see socially once or twice a year. He’s a genius when it comes to intuition and he reads a lot; everytime I see him, something new strikes me. He told me I shouldn’t be afraid of doing what I’d already done in the past because the symbols brought up by your unconscious belong to you, in a sense. For example, I don’t know why, but there are recurring themes of caves in most of my films. I think generally speaking it’s better not to spend too much time self-analyzing. I try not to think about images like that when they appear, as long as they’re in another context.” ■

Two Lovers and a Bear opens in theatres on Friday, Oct. 7.

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