Rob Vilar stars in "The First Winter" (Ryan McKenna)
The First Winter feels like fabulously depressive filmmaking—there’s no smiling and not much talking—but the final effect is funny.
—Alison Gillmor, reviewer
Call it an anti-tourism film. In this deadpan debut from Ryan McKenna, a Portuguese DJ named Rob comes to Winnipeg to see Sophie, a young woman who has become pregnant after their vacation hook-up. He finds a city of hopeless, lager-drinking denizens, boarded-up buildings and endless arctic night.
His quest is hapless, so hapless, in fact, that it becomes strangely comic.
McKenna, who currently divides his time between Winnipeg and Montreal, has constructed The First Winter according to his mock-strict manifesto of "Winnipeg Brutalism." (Sample points: "Each Brutalist film must contain at least one (un-faked) blizzard. Exterior shots are to be filmed between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox, and only at night. The director must live in squalor, avoid sunlight and eat only processed foods.")
Along with these homegrown influences, McKenna is riffing on the downer cinema of Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki and American cult fave Jim Jarmusch. The First Winter feels like fabulously depressive filmmaking--there's no smiling and not much talking--but the final effect is funny. McKenna pulls off this tricky tone thanks to his minimalist script and his unlikely leading man, Robert Vilar.
Vilar is a versatile actor. (In 2007, Cinematheque organized the Rob Vilar Film Festival as an homage to all the work he's done in small local films.) But here he's doing his best deadpan. It's an incredible performance that comes down to his incredible face, which is expressive in its inexpressiveness.
When Rob is sad, he looks sad. When he's happy, he looks sad. When he's in repose, he looks sad. When he's eating ice cream, he looks sad. (You get the picture.) But it's not a personal sadness, which would be mopey and self-indulgent. It's a kind of global sadness. Rob suggests some innate incompatibility between the individual and the outside world. Even Rob's interactions with inanimate objects feel like existential encounters.
Rob's Winnipeg "vacation" is, not surprisingly, a series of misadventures and miscommunications. Rob is buying infant sleepers at Zellers, while Sophie (beautifully underplayed by Eve Majzels) is booking an appointment at the abortion clinic. He's pining for her, while she's pining after her epically crappy current boyfriend. Expect scenes with long silences, abrupt endings, and a deliberately flat feel.
You have to like flat to like The First Winter. And if you do, this is flatness at its finest, chock-full of emptiness, darkness, despair and snow streaming horizontally across the screen. McKenna has suggested that the best bonus for the film's hometown premiere would be really cold weather and a blizzard.
Looks like he'll get his wish. Break out the balaclavas.
The First Winter screens at Cinematheque on select dates January 11-16.