Leap Year (2010)
Directed by Michael Rowe
Saturday, January 21 at the 92YTribeca's Cinema Tropical Festival
Michael Rowe's disquieting but remarkably powerful Leap Year, winner of the Camera d'Or for best debut film at the 2010 Cannes film festival, takes place during an elongated February. Its main character, Laura (Monica del Carmen), is crossing off the days on her calendar in anticipation of the 29th. Just why she is doing so remains unknown for much of the film, although by the time we discover the reason, it is hard not to expect the worse.
Laura is a journalist who lives alone in her Mexico City apartment and assures her family that she is successful in career and life, although her reality is far more complicated. She masturbates while spying on her happily coupled neighbors and fills her nights with anonymous sexual partners. The one partner who shows Laura a kind gesture, Arturo (Gustavo Sanchez Parra), is also the most aggressive, and together the two start an increasingly dangerous but loving sadomasochistic relationship. Arturo buzzes up and Laura throws down her key; she waits naked by the door, ready to submit to whatever Arturo desires.
There is a solid progression in the portrayal of Laura's sexual life that lifts the sex scenes from the gratuitous or needlessly shocking. The first night we're privy to is unremarkable, the second sparks concern, then the third signals a deeper problem. To know Laura, we realize, we must know her sex life, and this leads us to some uncomfortable places. Even as Laura's relationship with Arturo progresses, Rowe does not shy away from displaying the full physical act, burning cigarettes, strangulation, and all.
Leap Year is equally intelligent in how it handles the power dynamics of Laura's relationships. Del Carmen's rich performance draws out Laura's desire for an emotional connection. In the first few sex scenes, Laura's rebuffed outreach for post-coital tenderness is heartbreaking. But despite this openness and vulnerability, she does not come off as a pure victim of libido-rich men (although the first partners we meet appear to be that). Rather, as becomes clear in a particularly chilling scene later in the film, Laura uses the men who pass through her door for her own purposes as much as they use her.
As Leap Year gets further into its fateful month, it becomes an increasingly unnerving experience. Rowe, who also wrote the movie, keeps almost all the scenes contained in Laura's apartment and shoots exclusively with the camera fixed in one position, its gaze unflinching as the shots run for minutes on end. This gives the movie a cold, detached feel, and the camera can start to take on the persona of an emotionless participant in a heated argument. But even as the images on screen seem to cry for some judgment or commentary, and even as nothing comes but more dispassionate documentation, the discomfort is necessary. For Rowe to have implied or mellowed some of the more difficult scenes, rather than show them with a clinical eye, would have been an abjuration of responsibility toward Laura, whose desolation goes that far and calls for a witness.
Ultimately its detached style makes Leap Year a hard film to watch, but also accounts for its staying power. Our desire for the camera to move or cut away is in part our desire to not have to watch Laura's pain anymore, but Rowe does not let the audience off easy. He lets the images linger, at which point it is del Carmen's forceful presence that makes it hard for us to just turn away.