Leap Year (Año Bisiesto)
Mexico (2010) Dir. Michael Rowe
It was rather unfortunate that this occasionally kinky and graphic arthouse debut from Australian-Mexican Michael Rowe came out the same year as the lightweight Hollywood rom-com with the same title starring Amy Adams. You can imagine mums or girlfriends asking for the DVD as a Christmas or birthday present and some poor sap picking this up by mistake!
A fluffy comedy this is not as we follow the life of Laura (Mónica del Carmen), a 30-something singleton during the month of February and as the title informs us, it is a leap year. Laura’s life consist of writing the occasional article in her role as a freelance journalist many lonely nights in and the odd one night stand with random men she picks up in night clubs. Despite her loneliness and longing for some romantic stability, Laura assures her family by telephone that life is peachy.
One night she brings home a rather aloof chap named Arturo (Gustavo Sánchez Parra) who is more aggressive during their moment of intimacy which seemed to have an effect on Laura, as she accidentally called a prospective client Arturo over the phone. Unlike her previous conquests, Arturo becomes a regular fixture in Laura’s life, his violent sexual tendencies awakening something in Laura.
There may be a lot of sex in this film but it is not necessarily about that – it is a plot device which Rowe uses as a barometer to measure the emotional (and physical) journey Laura undertakes to discover her own path to some form of happiness, or whatever it is that she is looking for. And that is the conceit of this tale: what is it that Laura actually wants or needs?
Rowe depicts the quotidian ennui of Laura’s life with unflinching honesty and intimacy, from her weekly shopping to comfort eating in front of the TV, from her writing to showering and even using the toilet; Laura’s world is an open book to the audience, creating an uneasy voyeuristic vibe from our perspective whilst letting us getting to know her and her lonely life.
Laura isn’t entirely blameless in her solitude which is another mystery that keeps us intrigued in her plight. A phone call to her mother early on reveals that her late father’s estate is going to used to build a house for her and her brother Raúl (Marco Zapata) which angers Laura. However Laura has a better relationship with Raúl who occasionally shows up, but to whom his sister’s dull life is a secret.
This ambiguity about Laura is the glue that holds the story together, making all of her life decisions open to a different kind of scrutiny insofar as we are to sympathise, be afraid or pity her. As every day passes, Laura crosses it off on a calendar, with the 29th marked with a red square, signalling some significance to this date but with no-one to talk to, will we ever find out what it is?
Arturo soon becomes a constant in Laura’s life but is even more of an enigma, being the first man to ask Laura’s name and in fact still be there when she wakes up in the morning! However his penchant for borderline BDSM practices soon reveals itself but tells us little about the man himself while clouding our impressions of Laura. Does she tolerate it out of love, fear or has she found her erotic niche?
The approach to these scenes is decidedly unglamorous and raw, free from the exaggerated choreography found in Hollywood, although still difficult to watch. Laura is spanked, choked, whipped with a belt and even urinated on yet afterwards the couple settle down on the sofa in a post coital comedown as if nothing had happened.
All this time Rowe focuses the camera mostly on Laura to record her reactions – during the asphyxiation scene, Laura’s eye roll back in her head it is hard not to squirm and want to break through the screen to loosen Arturo’s hands from around her throat. To that end it is easy to view this film as misogynistic, tawdry and fantasy fulfilment on Rowe’s part, but as we head into the final act we find that this is missing the point somewhat.
So what is the point? Without revealing the ending it is difficult to discuss in detail but the essence is that we are witnessing the life of someone with immense emotional baggage that needs to be discarded but she doesn’t know how. It appears ironic that sex, which for Laura is usually unfulfilling, should be the vessel for her solution but a rare personal revelation puts this into perspective.
It’s also a tale of isolation and the emotional struggle of fitting in. it is about denial and not facing up to one’s fears and hiding the truth from those who can help. Yet this is a very frank and “ordinary” film which hides nothing on a visual front from the audience, making the scenarios and the intimacy of Laura’s small apartment – the main setting of the film – relatable.
Maintain the modesty of the film’s aesthetic, Rowe’s casting of the fairly plain, slightly chubby Mónica del Carmen as Laura is absolutely integral to its success. Rowe could have cast a sexy, hot bodied model but would have achieved nothing believable; del Carmen’s “normal” look is apropos to her performance – achingly raw, natural and tragically compelling. It is rare to have an actress be so emotionally bare and honest yet her character remains an unfinished puzzle.
This is also reflected in the conclusion which feels paradoxically final in terms of the story told, yet I doubt for many this will not be the biggest complaint. Leap Year is not a titillating film, its bold use of graphic and extreme sex being completely congruent to exploring the damaged psyche of a regular, lonely and yearning human being .
A quietly powerful and challenging viewing experience.