The story of two star-crossed lovers on the run from bad memories is at the heart of Two Lovers and a Bear, a new Arctic-set film from Rebelle director Kim Nguyen.
Counselling the couple is a talking polar bear, a philosophical addition to a movie that is part romance, part thriller and all icy cold isolation.
Montreal native Nguyen says the script for the film evolved over time, but many of the elements, including the talking bear came to him on a stopover at the Amsterdam airport.
“I was reading Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami,” he says. “There are weird gods in the book, kind of like imperfect Greek gods with flaws. It dawned on me that I should have something like an imperfect, flawed deity in the film.”
At the same time he noticed the airport’s giant brass teddy bears and voilà, the idea of an advice-giving polar bear was born.
The bear, played by a real polar bear named Agee and voiced by acting legend Gordon Pinsent, is the most fanciful part of a film that sees Lucy and Roman, played by recent Emmy winner Tatiana Maslany and Dane DeHaan, embark on a physical and metaphysical journey to confront their troubled, violent pasts.
“I’ve seen a lot of people like that,” Nguyen says of the people he met in Nunavut, “(people) who just can’t connect with an organized, dense, compact society. They have to go up North and that’s why you meet very interesting, unique characters up there. Often it is the people who don’t cope with societal norms.”
Nguyen’s unpredictable story intensifies with every twist, finding depth as the volatile Lucy and Roman explore the vast white expanse of their home and their innermost fears.
The lead actors have some heavy lifting to do to navigate the film’s many shifts from comedy, to psychological drama and isolationist horror.
To survive the inhospitable cold of their home both must be strong willed characters but both also wear their fragility on their parka sleeves. As such, Maslany and DeHaan are perfectly cast.
“We met a lot of people,” says Nguyen. “At the beginning it wasn’t defined exactly who Lucy was going to be; where she would come from. We wanted to keep it open with the casting. Tatiana came a little later on. We didn’t even think about her. Coming off of Orphan Black the casting director said, ‘Why don’t we try her? She’s versatile. She has range.’ She was gracious enough to do a screen test. She blew us away. She was totally way up there in the truthfulness and the authenticity. She is really someone who is able to connect. Kind of like Dane.
“I discovered Dane when I saw Place Beyond the Pines. When I saw that, I was certain that Dane wasn’t a trained actor. He was so authentic I assumed he was this guy who had this one role in him. Then I learned he was a trained actor and was really impressed by his performance.”
The six-week Nunavut shoot was gruelling for all, requiring physical stamina and a trait Nguyen calls “one of the biggest, most important qualities”— fearlessness.
“Dane and Tatiana have that,” says the director. “They dive in and they are not analyzing their performance as they’re playing it.”