Though the Australian is always ready to celebrate any creative talent that finds success overseas, the singularly arthouse sensibilities of director Michael Rowe have seen him largely ignored in this country despite his incredible gifts as a filmmaker, and a major triumph at one of the world’s biggest film festivals.
Australian-born Michael Rowe’s 2010 Cannes Film Festival Camera d’Or winning Leap Year is a startling account of a Mexican woman’s increasingly dangerous sexual encounters with a man that she picks up one night. While laden with risqué sex, at the film’s core is a moving meditation on loneliness and alienation. These were feelings familiar to Rowe, who moved to Mexico back in the 1990s “on a whim” without knowing a soul. “The film evolved from six years of living alone in a city of 23 million people,” Rowe explains. “It came from not really understanding the culture, or even speaking the language at first. That profound isolation was seminal in forming who I am today. I was interested in exploring it.”
Growing up in Ballarat and studying at La Trobe University, Rowe initially wanted to enroll in The Victorian College Of The Arts’ film programme to study screenwriting, but was given a piece of advice which changed his life. “I was advised not to apply, on the grounds that I was too young and inexperienced,” Rowe told FilmInk in 2010. “I was told, ‘Go out and live life first, and then come back and apply.’” Taking these words to heart, Rowe – who had visited Guatemala on a break year as a student – moved to Mexico when he was 23-years-old, and worked as a magazine editor and journalist, while writing scripts in his spare time.
Rowe never intended to direct, but assumed the role out of “sheer desperation to see my name on the screen.” He quit his editing job, and wrote the script for Leap Year with the idea of making it for the lowest possible budget. “I bought two books on how to direct, and read one and most of the other. I was a bit unsure when I got on set about whether I’d really be able to do it, but after the first half hour, I was flooded with a profound sense of peace. At last, I was in a job where I knew all the answers with absolute certainty. It was a moment that changed my life.”
Another life changer was winning the prestigious Camera d’Or at Cannes. “I thought that we were in with a good chance because everyone at Cannes was raving about the film, but then things went quiet. Somebody told us that they call you on Saturday if you win. The whole day passed without a peep. On Saturday night, the producers and I went out and drank ourselves into the sort of state that you don’t want to be in if you have any public engagements ensuing. At 11:45 the next morning, I was woken by the fateful phone call from my distributor. There’s no way to convey the extent of my disbelief and joy!”
When Rowe took out the award at Canes, questions of course started to swirl about whether he was an Australian or Mexican director. The answer lies somewhere in between. “I’m a Mexican filmmaker,” Rowe told FilmInk, “but the skeleton that underlies my narrative sensibility is, and will forever be, Australian. Perhaps that clash of two sensibilities gives my work something different.”
Rowe remained in Mexico for 2013’s The Well and the 2015 portmanteau film Vidas Violentas, but eventually embraced his Australian roots (sort of) with 2015’s Early Winter. An Australian/Canadian co-production, Early Winter explores a seemingly typical marriage in Quebec where the protagonist is a shift worker and his wife is at home with their two young boys. Without spelling things out, small details inform the characters’ inner lives, and we’re drawn into their existence, which reflects our own. “I met a Canadian producer at a film festival and we got drunk,” Rowe told FilmInk in 2015 of the origins of the project. “He sowed a seed for me; he talked about the effect that winter has on people. By the end of winter, there is an increase in the rates of depression and relationship break-ups – because people have been stuck in a house together for four months without seeing sunlight. I was quite amazed, coming from Australia and then Mexico – I never thought of weather affecting your emotions.”
For this fan of Raymond Carver’s short stories, the setting opened up all sorts of possibilities, which he threaded with personal details. “I’m a Mexican citizen, and I’ve lived here for 21 years,” Rowe told FilmInk. “I was married here, I’m divorced, I’ve got a nine-year-old daughter.” Early Winter deals with a crumbling union, and similarly aged children, and the lead character’s wife is an immigrant. “One of the recurrent themes in all my work, even though I don’t plan it that way, is social and cultural displacement and isolation. All of this comes out of, obviously, the experience of arriving in Mexico and speaking no Spanish, and looking out the window and seeing 23 million people and not being able to communicate on any level. That’s how I arrived, and it’s something that has affected me profoundly to this day.”
When FilmInk asked the inevitable question of whether Michael Rowe would be returning to Australia to make a film any time soon, the director was surprisingly optimistic, but equally cryptic. “I have got an upcoming project that I’m working on for 2017/2018. I’m interested in working in Australia. The Australian funding bodies will have no problems in letting me work on my terms and my kind of film. I have a track record now with a couple of decent prizes that will allow them to justify that.” Is he writing and directing this project? “Nooooooo. But if it comes off, and we’re not quite there yet, it’s going to spin Australian cinema in a different direction to where it’s been going for the last thirty years, and I think it’s a good thing.”
Unfortunately, that film never panned out for Michael Rowe, but he did once again challenge perceptions and social conventions with 2020’s Mar De Fondo, in which Demian Bachir (Land, The Hateful Eight) spends the day at the beach and enters the orbit of a much, much, much younger woman. Bold and daring, it’s another powerful work from one of Australia’s true Unsung Auteurs.
If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Rebecca Cremona, Stephen Hopkins, Tony Bill, Sarah Gavron, Martin Davidson, Fran Rubel Kuzui, Elliot Silverstein, Liz Garbus, Victor Fleming, Barbara Peeters, Robert Benton, Lynn Shelton, Tom Gries, Randa Haines, Leslie H. Martinson, Nancy Kelly, Paul Newman, Brett Haley, Lynne Ramsay, Vernon Zimmerman, Lisa Cholodenko, Robert Greenwald, Phyllida Lloyd, Milton Katselas, Karyn Kusama, Seijun Suzuki, Albert Pyun, Cherie Nowlan, Steve Binder, Jack Cardiff, Anne Fletcher, Bobcat Goldthwait, Donna Deitch, Frank Pierson, Ann Turner, Jerry Schatzberg, Antonia Bird, Jack Smight, Marielle Heller, James Glickenhaus, Euzhan Palcy, Bill L. Norton, Larysa Kondracki, Mel Stuart, Nanette Burstein, George Armitage, Mary Lambert, James Foley, Lewis John Carlino, Debra Granik, Taylor Sheridan, Laurie Collyer, Jay Roach, Barbara Kopple, John D. Hancock, Sara Colangelo, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Joyce Chopra, Mike Newell, Gina Prince-Bythewood, John Lee Hancock, Allison Anders, Daniel Petrie Sr., Katt Shea, Frank Perry, Amy Holden Jones, Stuart Rosenberg, Penelope Spheeris, Charles B. Pierce, Tamra Davis, Norman Taurog, Jennifer Lee, Paul Wendkos, Marisa Silver, John Mackenzie, Ida Lupino, John V. Soto, Martha Coolidge, Peter Hyams, Tim Hunter, Stephanie Rothman, Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.