Leap Year
aka Año bisiesto
Reviewed in September 2010 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Michael Rowe. Cast: Monica del Carmen, Gustavo Sánchez Parra, Marco Zapata, Ireri Solís, José Juan Meraz, Ernest González, Bertha Mendiola, Diego Chas, Jaime Serra, Armando Hernández. Screenplay: Michael Rowe and Lucia Carreras.
Twitter Capsule: This year's Caméra d'or winner elevates lurid premise, vague plot hinge with well-calibrated framing, tone, color

Photo © 2010 Machete Productions/Instituto Mexicano
de Cinematografía, © 2010 Strand Releasing
With a little critical distance, one of the most bemusing aspects of any international film festival is how everyone, including yours truly, almost unwittingly glides into this persona of having all of these sophisticated things to say about various national histories and contexts. As a result, you can find yourself approaching almost every film from Iran or Italy or Mali or Mexico as though it bears some essential truth about Iranianness or Italianness, or what it means these days to be a Malian or a Mexican, and freely holding forth on these resonances. A quick sampling of one's own national cinema ought to serve as a reminder that some films bear up to this scrutiny, probably even a greater percentage than are immediately obvious, but you don't want to get carried away, even as the publicists and press materials often cajole you in this direction. I say all this by way of admitting that, even though I read Australian-born, adoptively Mexican writer-director Michael Rowe calling Leap Year "in many ways [...] a metaphor for the complex victimizer-victim dichotomy that I think is the very heart of Mexican national identity," I cannot possibly take that bait. I have no idea whether or to what extent semi-anonymous erotics of domination and submission characterize the soul or the zeitgeist of modern Mexico, though I expect if Republican incumbents in some of our Southwestern states get wind of this, they will find themselves with more fuel on their hands than their fire even knows what to do with.

Beyond pure ignorance, another reason I find this thought difficult to explore (though perfectly plausible) in relation to Leap Year is that the movie's strength inheres so powerfully in its candor, its sense of putting all of its cards on the table without any showboating about the significance or the weight of its hand. Rowe, who won this year's prize at Cannes for the best debut feature, builds his film on the sturdy if somewhat unlikely shoulders of Laura (Monica del Carmen), an early-twentysomething freelance writer with no immediately captivating qualities, who lives in an apartment that is neither well- nor ill-maintained. She has to mind her budget, and is appropriately concerned when her ongoing contract with Your Business magazine gets scuppered by an inadequately fact-checked article, yet she's not undone by thi news and keeps her wits about her as she calls around for more jobs. True, she has private reasons for being less stressed out about this harrying turn than another character might be, but it also feels persuasively like a character trait, and a sign that we aren't witnessing a parable set on the brink of poverty or of professional fecklessness. Laura markets herself confidently, give or take a resonant slip-up with the name of a prospective employer she rings up.

Laura's mostly withheld personal history blends daughterly alienation, for reasons pregnantly insinuated but never fully disclosed, with long periods of being what Clementine Kruczynski would call "just another fucked-up girl trying to get by." Admittedly, while negotiating a mundane present and whatever sad, haunting power emanates from her past, Laura also exhibits some impressive erotic abandon; she spikes her listless days of working at home and chatting with friends and relatives with some surreptitious spying on her neighbors, sometimes masturbating at the banal but appealing spectacle of a happy-looking couple watching TV from their couch. More than that, Laura maintains an active rotation of one-night stands in her bedroom, and around midfilm, she begins a sustained but largely inchoate relationship with a slightly older man named Arturo (Gustavo Sánchez Parra) who embellishes their love-making with some slaps and spanks, then with some rough control over her breathing, and then with increasingly flamboyant displays of power. Though we see no evidence of such behavior with Laura's other paramours, it is clear that she is a consensual participant in these scenarios, even the ones that would look quite debasing if viewed out of the contexts of Rowe's impressively dispassionate direction or of Laura's own behavior: rushing to strip herself after buzzing Arturo up from the street, selecting props that she proffers to him upon entering.

Laura's blend of despair, sexual hunger, and palpable daddy issues aren't far off the example of Rinko Kikuchi's character in Babel, but recall how director Alejandro González Iñárritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga seemed only too pleased, within that character's scenes and in their juxtapositions to other plotlines, to see her as some kind of grand figure for an idea about "communication" (or its lack, its lack!) that never fully clarified despite the overwrought presentation. Monica del Carmen is as frank a presence as Kikuchi was a self-consciously hooded and mysterious one. This is why I'm surprised to hear Rowe floating an allegorizing read on his protagonist and his movie. There's nothing off-putting about that reading, or about the impulse to make one, but one of Leap Year's virtues, for me, is its rare ability to stake a film on a sadomasochistic relay that doesn't have to Stand For Anything. I'm nervous about it becoming known on the festival circuit as "the Mexican S/M shocker," because the glory of Rowe's direction lies in capturing the utter banality of Laura's life, including her embodied and erotic life, partially as a contrast to the rush of pleasure she secures from Arturo's visits, and partially as a permeating force. Which is to say, a disarming touch of everydayness spreads even into the most eye-opening encounters. Watching as he advances upon her bare torso with a still-burning cigarette, or devises other exchanges that will sound more inflammatory in description than they feel in the movie, absolutely leads to some shifting in your seat. Yet we sense at all times that he isn't running the show so much as reading the signals that Laura transmits, and pleasing her with the creative spins he puts on them. Somehow, without being remotely boring, it's in every other way the opposite of "provocation"; her bedroom remains a bedroom, not a Humid Chamber of Sexual Gamesmanship, if you know what I mean. In a Mexican context, the shooting style of Leap Year feels much closer to the raffish quotidianness of Fernando Eimbcke's Duck Season than the sensational maximalism of Carlos Reygadas's Battle in Heaven or, on other shores, the clinical confrontation with dangerous, even pornographic need that we find in Haneke's Piano Teacher. I admire the first two, very different films and revere the latter, so I'm not voicing a categorical preference for understatement, just a pleasant sense of surprise that the premise of Leap Year can be met with such a non-enervated, realistic eye. That eye feels committed to Laura's desires and her day-to-day reality than to some elaborate essay it's trying to extract from them.

Another way to present the same thought is to say that Leap Year strikes me as remarkably successful at telling a story of one woman's desire, and not only by contrast to how easily this could have been a story of a woman's debasement. The almost desultory build-up helps: we see Laura naked, early and often, but in shots and according to a rhythm that feel much more like the casual, wholly familiar experience one has of one's own body than like the laminated self-consciousness that films almost always bring to nudity, especially when those films are gearing us up for erotically challenging material to follow: "We might look casual now, but just you wait," etc. When Laura goes to the bathroom or reflexively picks her nose while typing at her laptop, nothing in the lighting or the angle or the editing intrudes to say, "Behold this woman's animality! Behold how close each of us finally is to Yon Beast, feeding and pleasuring ourselves, while imagining ourselves cultured!" She's a woman on a toilet, and a woman at her desk, with an itch in her nostril and a tickle in her groin. The film refreshingly calls into question what's so nervy about that, without playing dumb that its images will push a lot of people's envelopes. In fact, in general, the film is deft at keeping contrasting forces or implications at play at the same time. The contrast between the bright yellows, turquoises, and burgundies of the art direction and the low, ruddy, occasionally gloomy light protect Leap Year from seeming over-bright or crudely dark, either wholly artificial or dourly "real," just like the surprising chirpiness of Laura's voice in relation to her short, stalwart body catches us a little off-guard. The later relations between risky sexuality and utterly PG behavior (watching TV on the couch with Arturo, lying to your mother that you're eating better than you really are) feel like an extension of Leap Year's overall knack for operative contrasts that throw us off our most generic expectations without making a big show of toying with our responses or shuttling us between polar opposites of sensation.

Which leaves the titular conceit of what "leap year" means to Laura, and why the movie starts on February 1, and why she is X'ing all the days in her calendar until she arrives at February 29, which she has firmly blotted out with a heavy magic marker. I had a general guess what this was about, and I was generally right, though not completely. I question how much this trajectory really brings to the movie. In many ways, this whole dimension of the narrative—increasingly, the key dimension of the narrative—felt a bit like an arbitrary hook of "story" on which to hang a film whose higher-caliber pistons have to do with tone, texture, and form. Even here, Rowe shows himself capable of resisting expectations: having been conditioned early to stay mindful of Laura's calendar, we dawdle on some days, and race past others, gliding over milestones like Valentine's Day that we have expected might turn into a big deal, based on hints in dialogue as well as the overall preoccupations of the movie. But Rowe increasingly finds it hard, narratively and even visually, to remain so circumspect. I found myself appreciating the sidelong way in which he made me peer in non-obvious corners of his frames to gauge how much of February had passed in a given scene, only to have him cut to a boringly literal close-up that drives home the point. Something similar happens with a photograph of Laura's father on her night table, and even around a late sexual encounter with Arturo seemed, for the first time, a little prurient in its use of onscreen, edge-of-frame, and off-screen space. Rowe doesn't quite trust himself yet that, if he spreads information around his frames and gives us time to poke around, we'll find it. Applause, though, for the way that same scene with Arturo manages quietly but cleverly to tell us, through the timing of his stages of arousal and release, that what really excites him, somewhat unexpectedly, is the prospect of having her talk to him while he, for once, obeys her orders. They are memorable orders, and the shift in key from discussing them amidst a sexual role-play, possibly in Arturo's mind as a sexual role-play, and "continuing" that discussion in Laura's mind when she's clearly speaking in earnest is yet another moment when Leap Year lands a tricky turn in its plot and premise, without losing a bead on its characters. Again, this contrast is more effective for being relatively muted: Arturo clearly hears Laura differently by the end than he was at the beginning, but his response, largely internalized, is refreshingly complex. You can't imagine a single line of hysterical dialogue ("This isn't a game!" "But I thought you knew!") in either character's mouth.

The ending of Leap Year transpires neither as Laura nor as I had forecast, and I couldn't help thinking the conclusion gave her more to think about than it did me. I'm not saying it has no purchase as an ending. After all, one could read Arturo's choices in the finale as either a withdrawal from the terms of their relationship, or a total fulfillment of his dominating and regulating role, or as something in between. If Rowe weren't interested in having us contemplate the possibilities, I don't think he would offer one of those two-minute, sustained close-ups on his lead actress's face that are catnip to a certain kind of spectator (we know who we are!). Harder to reconcile, yet hardly a deal-breaker, is an inconvenient appearance at a key moment by a third character whose role has heretofore been peripheral. Laura's interaction with this character is moving enough to escape feeling like a cheap trick, but it's not far off. Leap Year ends with an over-the-shoulder close-up, from which vantage the photographed character's precise expression is hard to make out, and this more or less emblematizes the way Rowe's movie attains a conclusion by riding a thin line between intriguing ambiguity and a wispy patina of loose-endedness. But from the carefully managed framing and palette to the unostentatious gutsiness of the central performances to the refusal to align itself firmly with distancing, highfalutin metaphor or with an exploitative, salacious sexual bluntness, Leap Year is compelling as an unusual character study and as an example of disciplined direction. I'm not sure what Rowe will have to say in future films, or necessarily of how much he has to say in this one, but I'll be eager to lend an ear. As long as, you know, no one sticks a cigarette or ...anything else into it. Grade: B

VOR: (3)   (What is this?)
The lack of thematic ambition and the sense of winding down just when you might expect the movie to be ramping up makes Leap Year a little less special or original by its end than you feel like it's working itself up to be, steadily and surely, for around the first hour. Then again, it's a relief and even something of a risk to avoid the kind of "big finish" one might reasonably expect, and expect to lament, in a story like this. In that way and in others, Rowe has concocted material we might think we've seen before and managed to make it fresh by working as sturdily as possible against the grain of courting controversy, despite his undeniably pause-giving images. He adopts a stance as stylistically restrained as it is, in terms of erotic content, completely frank and testing of its audience. That's a hard balance to pull off, eminently deserving of respect.

Cannes Film Festival: Caméra d'Or (Best First Film)

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