Something wicked this way comes in Michael Rowe’s Leap Year, a character study of outstanding subtlety and fierce aesthetic exactitude, about an intelligent but troubled young woman with a dark secret—or so implies the calendar on the wall of her Mexico City apartment. It’s February and the twentysomething Laura (Monica del Carmen) crosses out the calendar’s days with a black magic marker, becoming more anxious as the last day of the month, denoted as a sinister red block, coldly approaches. Leaving a supermarket in the film’s opening scene, locked in a gorgeously symmetrical frame that’s been sprinkled with objects of striking blueness (just like the letters of the exit sign), Laura looks around for a hottie whose gaze never meets her own, then enters her home to commence what would appear to be a ritual of debasement that happens every year, perhaps even in those where there’s no such thing as a February 29.
Laura’s life as she lives it might not seem too different from that of any freelance journalist’s stay-at-home grind. Work is spotty, and she breaks up the monotony of her very long days by scrubbing the tub, smoking, playing Tetris, and spying on her neighbors: a young couple across the way and an older man and woman who lounge in their outdoor patio. Is Laura just a girl stroking one off to stave off boredom, or is the fierceness with which she rubs her clit, like the vigilance with which she contains herself within the walls of her flat, indicative of something else? Stocking up on food, then men, who fuck and leave her as she wishes until one, Arturo (Gustavo Sánchez Parra), asks for more, beginning with her name, Laura uses sex to ward off the fears of the very happy domesticity she either feels she can’t have or doesn’t deserve.
It seems necessary to call bullshit on Rowe’s assertion, in the film’s press notes, that Leap Year is a metaphor “for the complex victimizer-victim dichotomy that I think is at the very heart of Mexican national identity,” if only because that theme, so explicitly milked for maximum operatic verismo in Battle in Heaven, isn’t being worked out on this particular film’s screen. There’s nothing in Leap Year’s silent lucidity, even in those details so plainly hidden in sight, about nationalism, the personal as political; Laura’s ritual of shame doesn’t even suggest a manifestation of Catholic guilt. Which isn’t to say the film lacks for ambition, because the story’s view of Laura’s relationship to men does indeed ferociously and unusually articulate Margaret Atwood’s idea that “those who say they want nothing want everything.”
Leap Year is a story of survival, and its poised aesthetic is remarkably keyed to its main character’s shell-like behavior. Each passing day in the story suggests a notch on an advent calendar, every alternately bitter and penitent phone call (whether work or family-related), every fuck, every sealed letter, every glimpse at a picture frame, every bored, nervous twirling of an object in Laura’s hand an activity of sorts that, for the audience at least, becomes a revelation—insight into a woman coping not just with the banality of life but the trauma of something from her past that has soured her to the love of a man. The narrative is, like its graphic sex and Rowe’s artistry, blunt but never salacious, graceful in its quiet revelation of its character’s inner life. This is Battle on Earth, nothing more, and one is grateful for Rowe having kept the story on such a universal plane.