'Early Winter': Melbourne Review

The director's flintiest film yet.    

‘Leap Year’ director Michael Rowe decamps to Montreal in this Canadian-Australian co-production.

Australian-born, Mexico City-based filmmaker Michael Rowe completes his triptych of loneliness with Early Winter, in which David (Paul Doucet), a janitor working the night shift at a home for the elderly, struggles to connect to his brittle stay-at-home wife Maya (Mommy’s Suzanne Clement). Debuting in Melbourne before screening on the Lido in September, Rowe’s subdued film lacks the kink of his Camera d'Or-winning Leap Year and this one's central relationship — in which commitment exists but no passion — is almost an inversion of the one powering that debut. Like the director's previous The Well, Rowe's latest should find an admiring if not-quite-fanatical reception on the festival circuit.

As in his earlier films, the filmmaker's still, lingering compositions are as detached as his protagonist. David gets home from work to find two indifferent boys and a wife perpetually zonked out watching TV or playing games on her phone. Doucet, alternating between French at work and English at home, makes for a hulking bear of a protagonist, but DP Nicolas Canniccioni’s long takes of David sitting in his living room — surrounded by his family but ignored — make his size a source of pathos instead of power. Rowe only pushes in for a close-up once in the entire film, of David in the shower; he blows his nose soccer-style and is admonished for it by Maya offscreen.

Aside from an opening sex scene whose aftermath is all arid civility, the bedroom is a battleground. Maya’s phone regularly pings in the middle of the night; she leaves the room to answer it while David glowers at the ceiling. On weekends David encourages his wife to get out of the house — she screams at him that she has no friends and that “nobody speaks English around here”. The casting of the lightly accented Clement in the role of a monolingual feels like a last-minute switcheroo (Melissa George was announced at an earlier stage) but the disconnect hardly registers – a credit to Clement’s truly persuasive iciness.

Rowe drip-feeds information at a glacial pace but with creditable subtlety. David is consumed by jealousy over an affair his wife had six years ago, while a traumatic guilt from his previous marriage comes into view only gradually. Even in the supposedly inclusive space of an AA meeting, Rowe’s camera, almost always wide, makes David anonymous; his is one of several middle-aged heads blankly watching the confessions of others. David’s own, when he summons the courage to volunteer it, catches in his throat. Work, AA, home: the world of Early Winter is as contained as the director’s two earlier features, and the transplantation to frosty Montreal from Mexico compounds the suffocating gloom.

At the nursing home David plays board games with the patients, renovates any fixture in sight and listens attentively to the worries of the night-nurse. His all-round decency makes his wife seem all the more harridan-like, and if there’s a flaw to Rowe’s precisely configured screenplay it’s that Maya is a touch too unsympathetic. When she harangues David for buying a second-hand refrigerator, he points out that two of her toys cost more. Maya’s comeback — that they’re limited edition! — feels both beyond the pale and too broad.

If this dissection of a marriage in a terminal fugue state feels too stacked by half, it’s perhaps because Early Winter is not really a portrait of a couple but of a man alone in company. In his first film in his native tongue, Rowe’s un-ingratiating austereness builds to a denouement in which the simplest of questions — eggs or pancakes for breakfast? — hovers with the paralyzing weight of lifetime commitment.

Production Companies: Possibles Media, Freshwater Productions, Telefilm Canada, Screen Queensland, Filmfest Limited

Writer/Director: Michael Rowe

Cast: Paul Doucet, Suzanne Clement, Micheline Lanctot, Lise Martin, Alexandre Marine, Michel Riendeau, Ambrosio de Luca, Celine Bonnier

Producers: Serge Noel, Trish Lake

Co-Producer: Dan Lake

Executive Producer: Richard Cohen

Director of Photography: Nicolas Canniccioni

Production Designer: Pierre Allard

Costume Designer: Alexandra Sawicki

Editor: Geoff Lamb

Sound Designer: Simon Hicks

Original Music: Amy Bastow

Sales: Rialto

No rating, 99 minutes