Most sex in the cinema strikes one note, a glossy fantasy where beautiful bodies writhe without a hint of dirtiness or a sign of awkward energy. Bad sex, more often than not, is played for laughs. Indulging the egos of men, bad sex becomes the symptom of a woman’s “quirkiness” or weirdness — ignoring altogether the possibility that women struggle more than men to find fulfilling sex, while also casting aside the idea that sex is both more and less than the pursuit of pleasure or an expression of love. In 2015, a number of films have tried to break away from these preconceived forms of sexuality onscreen, as Gaspar Noé’s Love, Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy and Sean Baker’s Tangerine use sex to break through taboos, representing sex in new and exciting ways.
Released across Canada in January (the film has already had a brief run at the Montreal Phi Centre), Michael Rowe’s Early Winter follows in this tradition of representing a nuanced and challenging representation of sex. The film opens with Maya (Suzanne Clement) on top of her husband, David (Paul Doucet), undulating with a practical and forceful rhythm. Immediately striking, you feel this woman knows what she wants and knows how to get there. Shot in a long take, the scene transforms before our eyes. We go from titillating to desperate as we become increasingly aware that Maya’s movements and mood are passionless. As she gets off her husband, they start to argue over the fact that she didn’t come, with the coldness between them apparent.
Early Winter is a northern cold climate film, the early Winter representing the legitimate isolation that comes once the snow and cold settles. Cabin fever is a very real thing, and even more painful when there is an emotional bridge between one and their significant other. In Early Winter, the gasps of desperation that exist between the two can be incredibly heavy, amplified by Rowe’s preferences for long takes. The space between the characters — real and imagined — weighs on the film and makes for an uncomfortable viewing situation. Taking centre in the beginning, the upfront sex fringes and stays off screen for most of the film.
Rowe similarly uses technology to emphasize the growing hole between Maya and David, as Maya seems to lose herself in games and text conversations on her smartphone. Rather than focusing on the alienating power of all technology, the silence replaces the glowing light. Above all else, though, it is the cold that dominates. Snow and dropping temperatures reduce mobility, creating a literal prison of the couple’s small home. Their small children even seem to fade as the film goes on, the silence and resentment growing. Even though the characters aren’t speaking, you feel the weight of imagined conversations and heated paranoia, and the film’s boiling tension reaches a point of emotionally violent confrontation, which is at once cathartic and heartbreaking, as the cold has settled for the long-haul.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.