Film review by: Witney Seibold
Michael Rowe‘s “Leap Year” is an intimate portrayal of one woman’s steady descent into despair, and is told with such strength, insight, and bare-faced tact that we’re willing to make the plunge with her, even knowing that the inevitable conclusion to this must be an entrance to a very dark place. The film’s lead actress, Monica del Carmen, who inhabits literally every frame of the film, gives one of the best performances of the year, and the film is so powerfully moving, it could make it onto the annual year-end lists of best films of the year, provided savvy critics and audiences bother to seek it out. It is a combination of Mike Leigh’s masterful kitchen sink realism, and Michael Haneke’s unrelenting, bold eyeballing of the origins of human cruelty.
Taking place almost entirely within a small Mexico City apartment, Laura (del Carmen) lives a Sisyphusian life of stultifying repetition. She writes on her computer during the day, cleans her apartment, and eats cheap, out-of-the-can dinners at night. She occasionally talks to her mother in a distant city, and very causally tells little white lies about her life. Yes, mom, I have a boyfriend. No, I’m actually having steak for dinner. My apartment is large and comfortable. We’re unable to tell if this is pathological lying, or the common type of lies we tell our parents so they won’t worry about us. She has dinner with her little brother, and they go shopping. We never follow Laura out of the apartment, though.
A few nights a week, Laura puts on makeup and a nice dress and goes out to bars or clubs, where she will invariably pick up a stranger, take him home and have dirty sex with him. O no, “Leap Year” is not shy about its sexuality. When sex is depicted on screen in most feature films, it usually serves as an intermission to the action. That two characters are having sex at that moment is enough of a plot point, and seeing it is just a bonus for the viewers. Laura’s sexual habits are, conversely, pertinent to the tone, and the type of sex she has, how her body looks, and the general mood of her sexual behavior all feeds into the texture of the film. This is not a flick to exploit sexuality. This is a film largely about sex.
And, as it turns out, Laura’s sex is physically passionate, but pointedly cold. Her various affairs seem to provide no release from her monotony; indeed her flings are just another part of her dull routine.
One night, she picks up a fellow named Arturo (Gustavo Sánchez Parra), and their sex is a little more rough than usual. He slaps her a bit. She doesn’t seem to mind. Arturo is the only one of Laura’s hookups that returns with any regularity. As their sex life progresses, it becomes more and more violent. He begins to insult her, hit her, command her, choke her. In once particularly shocking scene, Arturo forces her onto the floor and urinates on her. Laura seems to love these games, and is incredibly turned on by the sub/dom relationship that seems to be forming. WE begin to sense that these two may be kindred spirits, and have a common sexual interest that is rare to find. After they share the filthiest of sex acts, they cuddle, and seem to share the only moments of the film’s real intimacy.
Laura is also marking off her calendar. On February 29th, there is a big red 店.What is she counting down to? Given the film’s deliberate tone of bleakness, it can only be some point of oblivion. I will not reveal what she plans, or why, but I will say that “Leap Year” is very good about keeping that information subtle, and only metes it out in quiet pieces of casual conversation.
“Leap Year” is a wonderfully harrowing mood piece of heartbreak and monotony that feels boldly and disturbingly universal. It’s hard to watch, and may no be for everyone, but I found it to be one of the better films of the year.