Early Winter

October 7, 2016
Suzanne Clément & Paul Doucet in 'Early Winter' (2015)
Suzanne Clément & Paul Doucet in 'Early Winter' (2015)

After watching almost four-and-a-half hours of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage, in the TV broadcast version, Clive James declared it the Higher Trash. The verdict owed something to the dubbing and translation, but he ultimately found that Bergman’s grinding portrayal of a marital breakdown was soap carved into the shape of art.

One wonders what Clive would make of Michael Rowe’s Early Winter, a portrait of a marriage every bit as chilly as its title suggests. The film has a couple of significant advantages over Bergman’s efforts. Firstly, it’s much shorter, lasting only 97 minutes. Secondly, the dialogue is relatively sparse, with nothing that would qualify as tortuous, long-winded, over-intellectualised or poetic. The silences are as meaningful as the words.

Rowe, who has written and directed, is an Australian who has spent much of his working life abroad. In 1994 he left Melbourne for Mexico, where he made his debut feature, Año Bisiesto (Leap Year), in 2010. It went on to win the Caméra d’Or at Cannes for best first-time director. His next feature, Manto Acuífero (The Well) (2013), seemed to vanish without a trace.

Early Winter, set in Montreal, is billed as Rowe’s first English-language film – which almost certainly makes him the only Australian director whose first two features are in a foreign language. If he hasn’t entirely escaped the subtitles it’s because much of the dialogue in Early Winter is in French.

It’s an intensely interiorised movie, with a narrative that flows as slowly as molasses. The story focuses on David, in his late forties, who is married to Maya, a Russian emigrée. The couple have two small sons, who leave the house in a perpetual mess. The sex scene is dispensed with before the opening titles are finished, and we see just enough to know there is something wrong. It may be no more than the inevitable cooling of passion that happens in any long-term relationship, but we gradually realise there are underlying complications.

David, played by Paul Doucet, works as a caretaker at an old people’s hospital. Along with his cleaning duties he takes an almost pastoral interest in the patients, sitting with them as they gasp their last breath, saying words of comfort. He also attends meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, and struggles with chronic back pain.

There is a secret in David’s past that he can’t talk about, but eventually we get a rough idea of the problem. This burden of guilt motivates his behaviour with the patients, but also renders him immensely vulnerable.

Maya is played by Suzanne Clément, known for her appearances in the films of Québécois wonderboy, Xavier Dolan, although this is a far more subdued role. Maya is slovenly in her habits and indifferent to housework. She plays video games on her phone, and seems bored and restless. She hardly speaks French and doesn’t go out much. It often seems that the two boys are the only tangible links she has with her husband.

It takes most of the film to understand what’s going on between David and Maya. Rowe builds up his portrait of a marriage detail by detail. What appears ordinary at first, becomes increasingly tense and fraught. There’s a chasm inexorably opening between husband and wife, but it’s a slow, insidious process. One thinks of the deep-rooted melancholy (or should that be “misery”?) of Paul Cox’s films, notably My First Wife (1984).

There is a studied objectivity about Rowe’s methods. He stands back from the action as if he is making a documentary, dividing a shot so that figures are framed within different parts of the house or room. There are scenes in which we see an actor only from the shoulders down, as if to symbolise their estrangement. Rowe employs no background music and very little drama. Vital information about the characters is revealed grudgingly, as if we had no right to invade their privacy.

This creates a heightened sense of realism that for many viewers will conjure up unhappy memories of their own marital disasters. One wonders how many of us want to be reminded of the way love degenerates into habit, and in some cases, resentment and hostility. In this instance, David has a need for domestic stability, while Maya is worn down by stale routine. She collects designer toys, he likes to fix old radios and fridges, but it’s not so easy to mend a broken heart, as the Bee Gees sang.

The spiritual sustenance David gets from talking with aged and dying patients cannot be shared with his wife. He suspects she has her own secrets, and this inflames his fears and his jealousy. Ultimately he finds it impossible to separate emotions such as grief, guilt and paranoia. Maya gives the impression she would rather not think too deeply about anything, let alone the painful events of the past – those that preceded her entry into David’s life, and those she precipitated. It seems David views marriage as a form of asylum while for Maya it represents a hollow fulfilment. For the viewer it’s a cold, bleak picture of a prison without walls.

Early Winter
Written & directed by Michael Rowe
Starring Paul Doucet, Suzanne Clément, Ambrosio De Luca, Michael Riendeau
Canada/Australia, rated MA 15+, 97 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 8th October, 2016.