In some marital-strife dramas, one hopes for spouses to work out their differences; in others, a swift separation seems the kindest outcome for characters and viewers alike. “Early Winter,” the first predominantly English-language feature from Australian-born auteur Michael Rowe, oscillates between both these descriptions — and finally invites little emotional investment either way. While retaining the reserved compositional grace and objective eye for domestic minutiae that earned the helmer Cannes plaudits for 2010’s “Leap Year,” Rowe’s latest uncovers few compelling human truths by stepping so far back from the withering marriage of a Montreal couple, as the December freeze all-too-symbolically sets in. Save for one nugget of melodramatically withheld tragedy, it’s a relationship study more authentic than it is involving, lensed with exquisite care and performed with grim commitment by Paul Doucet and Suzanne Clement. A commercial cold front likely awaits “Early Winter” past the fest circuit.
Already unveiled as a work in progress in Melbourne, this Australian-Canuck co-production premieres internationally at Venice in September, marking a return to A-list fests for Rowe following the low profile of his 2013 soph feature, “The Well.” The presence of Xavier Dolan collaborator Clement in a leading role may draw a few more arthouse eyeballs to “Early Winter,” but it remains a tough sell: Having ventured beyond his adoptive Mexico, the setting of his first two features, to the crisp northerly climes of Quebec, Rowe has allowed his already austere formal style to harden up further, with nary a hint of the mordant humor that his debut brought to disquieting material. After considering his wife’s TV viewing preferences, weary family man David (Doucet) suggests she watch reruns of “Friends” because, he says, “at least it’s funny.” Like the marriage under scrutiny, the film knows the value of laughter but can’t summon it.
“Leap Year” notably never left the confines of its protagonist’s poky apartment; “Early Winter” has the outside world at its disposal, with d.p. Nicolas Canniccioni even luxuriating in the odd rosy, wide-skied sunset between the somberly lit interiors of David’s home and work lives. Yet a kind of claustrophobia remains: Rowe’s distinctive framing often leaves cramped characters cut off at the neck, their stale squabbles proceeding headlessly in decidedly thin air. A candid opening sex scene, shot in a confrontationally tight single take, immediately establishes the awkward manner in which David and his wife, Maya (Clement), share space: Even in moments of intense intimacy, they appear to be in each other’s way. The sex is unsatisfactory for her; later, she’ll find her own advances rebuffed in a bookending scene.
Through passing divulgences nestled in the pair’s largely terse exchanges, the couple’s backstory emerges at leisure. Maya is a Russian immigrant — not an immediately obvious detail, given Clement’s ambiguously muffled Quebecois accent — who has yet to build a social network in their sleepy, French-speaking residential neighborhood. David, a native Canadian, is on his second marriage, and still living down the consequences of his former alcoholism. His job, working nights as a caretaker in a retirement home, is hardly an escape from the severity of his home environment. David and Maya’s differing schedules have led to an unequal allocation of affection from their two preteen sons: As in many marriages, the stay-at-home mom is taken for granted, while the irregularly present father is more enthusiastically favored. “They pretend they like anything to spend time with you,” she snipes, herself well past such courtesies.
Rowe has a keen sense of the latent hostilities that parents express in the presence of their children, and of the tensions that quietly warring lovers can locate in even the most benign domestic routines. (The mere unpackaging of a new appliance is a brittle procedure here.) Doucet’s and Clement’s performances convincingly parcel seething accusations and inquiries into offhand, clearly well-worn complaints: When David mutters his dislike of his wife’s faded lower-back tattoo, it’s an entire phase of past behavior that he really calls into question. These micro-conflicts are observed with vinegary accuracy, but don’t quite sustain a 96-minute dual-character sketch, particularly with Maya’s inner life cordoned off throughout. A late escalation in the dramatic tenor of the proceedings, prompted by suspicions of third-party intrusion, rings less true than the passive-aggressive friction that propels most of the film, or the intriguing secondhand samples of other families’ crises that David absorbs at work.
As a mournful mood symphony — albeit one with assiduously sparing use of its own music — “Early Winter” is more consistent, as Canniccioni’s dusky lighting schemes and Geoff Lamb’s languidly forbearing editing channel David’s own placidly unhappy frame of mind. The encroaching winter may be an elementary metaphor for the indefinitely dormant relationship in question, but it’s an effectively realized one: Clammy condensation practically appears on the screen as characters come in from the cold to another, less seasonally transient, sort of chill.