Leap Year is a grim, uncomfortable but technically superb debut by Mexico-based Australian director Michael Rowe. Exploring loneliness and consensual sexual violence, it features one of the best female performances I’ve seen this year from actress Monica del Carmen. She plays Laura, a troubled and melancholy loner, still grieving from the death of her father on February 29th four years ago but managing to earn a living as a freelance journalist in Mexico City. Laura passes her days crossing off the dates on her calendar and gazing longingly at the happy couples living in her apartment block. She lies to her mother at the end of the telephone in Oaxaca about non-existent friendships and opportunities, and looks forward to the visits from her younger brother, the only consistency in her life.
Her sense of loneliness and self worth aren’t helped by the strangers she picks up in bars to bring home and fuck, but she craves stimulation both emotional and physical, and when one of these men (Arturo, played by Gustavo Sanchez Parra) returns the next night, introducing her to more sadomasochistic sexual pleasures, she (almost literally) puts herself at his disposal. As these games become more ritualised and humiliating, Laura pushes the boundaries of her capacity for pain, perhaps because of an ambiguously implied reference to childhood abuse (she lost her virginity at 12 but refuses to say more), or perhaps because of the tender moments which follow each encounter with Arturo. With the anniversary of her father’s death approaching for the first time in four years, she offers Arturo the ultimate sadomasochistic sexual kick, graphically and horrifically described she plans her own murder/suicide at his hands to take place on leap year day.
Shot in stunning widescreen solely within the confines of her tiny apartment, Leap Year is slow starting, with its’ themes and explorations only really surfacing in the second half of the picture. Del Carmen’s beautifully observed performance takes us through the mundaneness of Laura’s solitary existence for the first half but it’s only really in the latter part of the film that the palpable sense of claustrophobic tension truly sets in. Impeccably directed, there’s an incredibly dark sense of humour at play, and whilst perhaps not as explicit or nihilistic as Nagisa Oshima’s Ai No Corrida (1976) it’s certainly a thematic companion that also recalls David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) in its’ objective detachment and to a lesser degree the gallows humour of the more successful Secretary (2002).
Rowe was deservedly awarded the Camera D’Or at Cannes this year, and whilst often unpleasant to watch, the brutal honesty and bravery of the performances make Leap Year a troubling yet tender exploration of love, loss, passion and violence.
Leap Year (Ano Bisiesto) – 2010 – Mexico – 92 mins – Dir : Michael Rowe
Screening as part of the World Cinema strand at the London Film Festival on Saturday 16th & Sunday 17th October. Tickets available at www.bfi.org.uk/lff