Leap Year is uncommonly sexy and distanced at once—its eroticism, at least initially, springing from its acceptance of the sexually outré as matter of fact. The marvelous tone is trickier than it may at first appear to be, as two seemingly contradictory moods are sustained. The film is about loneliness and alienation, but it’s also about a brief sexual blossoming that represents a tentative dip of the toe into larger sociological possibilities, and it’s that tentativeness, laced with the possibility of real danger, that makes the fairly explicit coupling here so erotic and so unusually truthful and moving. This is one of the best movies I’ve seen in years about two subjects that are frequently mucked up by the movies: sex and longing. This mixture of sex, danger, and despair is also the reason Leap Year has been likened to Last Tango in Paris, but that isn’t quite right. Last Tango in Paris works on the level of opera, while Leap Year is a mercilessly concentrated character piece that frequently threatens to turn into a horror film (it reminded me, at times, of Lucky McKee’s underrated May).
Laura (the marvelous Monica del Carmen) is a freelance journalist who works at home, and it would appear that business isn’t all that great. And working from home, as anyone with experience will tell you, isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be anyway, as the long instances of tedium inherent to most any job are exponentially accentuated by the isolation. Laura wouldn’t appear to have all that much work as a freelance writer anyway: Her editors take her to task for errors that may or may not be her fault, and her apartment, the film’s only setting save a brief tone-establishing vignette that opens the film, is a modest middle-to-lower-class dwelling somewhere in Mexico City.
So Laura has quite a bit of time on her hands, and the film mostly concerns how she goes about revealingly filling it. There are the phone calls to her brother and mother, both of whom she lies to concerning the rituals of her life, as well as the peeping in on the attractive couple who live across the way. There’s also, most sadly, the string of awkward, unromantic one-night stands nearly each evening. In Laura’s fantasy life, she’s a popular, successful young woman with a satisfying romantic relationship who eats three quality squares a day. In reality, she’s an intelligent, purposefully isolated depressive who masturbates to the everyday routines of a neighboring couple while nurturing an escalating self-hatred.
Leap Year is director Michael Rowe’s first film, and he works with an assurance that should shame many seasoned professionals. Rowe understands the quiet details that define and illustrate a person’s life, and he works with searing exactitude. The way Laura eats a can of beans for dinner is heartbreaking without being fussed over, and her one-nighters, which make up much of the second half of the film, are staged with a similarly unhurried, deceptively casual power.
Most haunting is Laura’s ambiguous face, which seems most of the time to be focused on contriving an expression that conveys a pretend awkwardness and shame regarding the mornings after. But that’s a formality meant to oblige a social expectation, as Laura has reached a point in her life of what we believe at first to be indifference in extremis. But Laura’s rut is disrupted, after a lengthy spell, by the appearance of Arturo (Gustavo Sánchez Parra), a lover who treats her like a lady in the living room and a whore in the sack.
Rowe, until the somewhat disappointing ending, doesn’t indulge a number of the banalities that we might expect from this scenario, such as to predictably explain that the roughness of Laura and Arturo’s sex is rooted in histories of abuse. The sex—punctuated by spankings, golden showers, and so forth—is simply an alternate means of communication between two people who’re unreceptive to the sorts of “conventional” communication that amiable and social people take for granted. Laura, perhaps unknowingly, doesn’t want the traditionally cozy relationship that the neighboring couple would appear to have, and this is partially, but not entirely, why she’s estranged from her surrounding world. Arturo, who has the instinct, the balls, and the decency to recognize a kindred spirit, is able to tap into her interior self in a way that many lovers at least pretend to take for granted.
If Leap Year had little in the way of an actual conclusion, if Rowe had trusted the masterfully implicative nature of his setting and his staging, the film might have been a perfectly curt refutation of the various clichés we offer ourselves to explain our essentially inexplicable desires. But the film, which initially and bracingly presents Arturo and Laura’s fucking without comment or judgment, eventually offers a titular explanation for Laura’s behavior that wouldn’t be entirely out of place in a Zalman King movie. Leap Year builds to a powerful climax that reveals one lover to be out of their depth, only to somewhat undermine it with pop psychology.
Rowe’s instinct is understandable, as the idea of offering a trauma associated with a leap year is obviously meant to provide a kind of containment for what Laura and Arturo share with one another. But how many relationships are actually perfectly contained little chapters in our lives? There are women I’ve known, some I’ve only spoken to for a few minutes in a book store, that still haunt me, particularly when I watch films like Leap Year. Rowe, in one of the strongest debuts I’ve seen in years, doesn’t need the melodramatic crutches that suit lesser directors, because our intangible recesses can’t or shouldn’t be reduced by brackets or footnotes.
I didn't detect any problems in the sound. The dialogue is synched up nicely and the diegetic sounds, which dominate the movie, are appropriately layered and ultimately convincing. The image is competent, but it's also a little soft, which is disappointing as a sharper image transfer would be preferred for such a beautiful film. That said, the muted browns that dominate the film are probably meant to be fuzzy, so this might constitute nitpicking.
Just a trailer.
One of the best erotic dramas in years, Leap Year deserves more than this sparse DVD treatment, but it's still a must-own for cinephiles until Criterion hopefully gets a hold of it.