Dir/scr: Michael Rowe. Canada / Australia. 2015. 96 mins.

Early Winter

Those familiar with the work of Michael Rowe, particularly his 2010 Cannes Camera d’Or winner Leap Year, won’t be surprised to find that his first primarily English-language feature opens with the sounds and sights of two people getting physical. In an intimate feature bound to do the rounds of the festival circuit, frank dialogue follows as a married couple briefly addresses their bedroom issues. As the rest of the meticulous and measured film explores, their between-the-sheets antics are symptomatic of larger troubles.

That Doucet and Clement enliven the feature, albeit only slightly, says much about their strengths and subtleties, rather than those of a movie that is well observed and composed but cold and distancing otherwise

Premiering at Venice Days after presenting a work-in-progress screening in Melbourne, Early Winter hones in on the oft-covered topic of marital disharmony. An Australian-Canadian co-production, it was filmed in the latter country but draws upon the experiences of Rowe’s family members in the former. The feat that the feature was previously called Rest Home indicates the flipside to the tale, which largely unfolds in two greyly lit settings. The pervasive feeling of being trapped is as evident within the Montreal house where the bulk of the action takes place as it is in the elderly care facility which puts the central domestic dysfunction into life-and-death context.

David (Paul Doucet) and Maya (Suzanne Clément) comprise the unhappy pair in question, wandering through past misdeeds, indiscretions and other long-gestating woes as the discontented are inclined to do. As the season that gives the movie its name sets in, he works nights as a janitor at a retirement village, she stays home with their two sons, and neither appears pleased with their choices.

Physically and emotionally wearied from caring for those who can’t fend for themselves, David rankles against the messiness that greets him at home whenever he walks in the door, as well as the constant television watching and video game playing. Cut off from her friends and family, and remaining inside for much of her time, Russian immigrant Maya resents his ostensible freedom.

As Australian-born, Mexico-based Rowe’s previous offerings, including 2013’s The Well, have made plain, the writer/director possesses a penchant for precisely framed, patiently timed, static scenes that ask the audience to wait and watch as events unravel. That Early Winter favours the same long-take, long-shot approach under cinematographer Nicolas Canniccioni (Gerontophilia) and editor Geoff Lamb (StalkHer) both keeps with the filmmaker’s preferred style and indulges his recurrent fascination with claustrophobia, connection and isolation.

Whether shooting the introductory sex scene close and tight from behind Doucet’s head, or looking straight on as cropped forms move about the main living area, the film spares no opportunity to emphasise the space — both in absence and abundance — that surrounds its characters. In stressing the strains of long-term relationships, unglamorous routines and plodding rhythms monopolise the repetitive images, as well as the plot as it works towards more melodramatic developments. The symbolism imparted by the telling title, as well as the accompanying wintry visages and chilly tone, adds another layer of visual and thematic mirroring.

Within such an aesthetically and narratively restrained environment, the key duo is tasked with providing the texture needed to keep the film from folding under the weight of its solemn mood. Doucet remains insular as he switches between English and French with ease, and Clément proves brittle yet balanced in straying beyond her recent work in Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways and Mommy. In an effort sparse on conversation and slow on movement, much rests upon their convincing performances — and in a minimalistic presentation in general, much hinges upon their expressions. That they enliven the feature, albeit only slightly, says much about their strengths and subtleties, rather than those of a movie that is well observed and composed but cold and distancing otherwise.

Production companies: Possibles Media, Freshwater Productions

International sales: Pyramide International, sales@pyramidefilms.com

Producers: Serge Noel, Trish Lake

Cinematography: Nicolas Canniccioni

Editor: Geoff Lamb

Production design: Pierre Allard

Main cast: Paul Doucet, Suzanne Clément, Micheline Lanctôt, Lise Martin, Alexandre Marine, Michel Riendeau, Ambrosio de Luca, Celine Bonnier.