As polished and superbly shot as Leap Year consistently is, Michael Rowe's debut feature remains an extraordinarily hard film to watch. It is a study of loneliness and longing, with its narrative following a month in the life of Laura (Monica del Carmen), a journalist living in isolation in Mexico City. Laura clearly desires companionship; the film opens with her observing a male shopper as she wanders around a supermarket, and in an early scene we see her masturbate as she watches a happy couple in the apartment across the street. It's a desperately lonely existence, and the only solace she finds is in the one-night stands she frequently has with the men she takes home from bars and clubs.
Rowe's depiction of the sex between Laura and her various partners is frank and clinical. We view their loveless encounters in stark single shots, with the director frequently lingering on his characters in the moments after their unsatisfactory climaxes, as the men immediately make their excuses and leave (one even phones his girlfriend while Laura lies beside him, quickly forgotten). The only man who comes back for more is Arturo (Gustavo Sánchez Parra). He introduces Laura to rougher sexual exploits, beginning with some strangling during intercourse, and soon his visits become a regular highlight in Laura's life. She leaps to attention when he appears, ready and willing to push the boundaries of sex and pain further, and things escalate quickly; Laura is whipped by his belt, pissed on and burned by his cigarettes. At last, she's finally feeling something.
Even though Leap Year is set entirely within the cramped confines of Laura's apartment (aside from that brief supermarket opening), Rowe ensures his film is cinematic, with his superb compositions creating a sense of claustrophobia and tension. It's a slow burner of a film, with Rowe pacing his picture steadily, but it grows quickly absorbing and downright riveting when Laura and Arturo start engaging in ever more intense sexual activities. Essentially a two-hander for half of its running time (although Laura's brother makes a few short appearances), Leap Year benefits hugely from the conviction and authenticity of del Carmen and Parra's performances. In particular, del Carmen shows a complete lack of self-consciousness in front of the camera (Rowe's camera often watches her sitting on the toilet picking her nose of performing mundane household tasks) and brings a note of tenderness and integrity to her troubled character.
What Leap Year ultimately lacks is a real sense of purpose. The climax feels hollow and underwhelming after the often gripping drama of what has gone before, and we might be left wondering what exactly we have learned about these characters at the end of it all. The sense of trauma that hovers in Laura's past – we are led to believe that her father died on February 29th – is poorly developed and doesn't really resonate as a key factor in her behaviour. Nevertheless, this is a strong, challenging piece of filmmaking, and a hugely impressive debut from Michael Rowe. It's worth recommending for its performances and aesthetic style, both of which far outweigh its occasional shortfalls.
The bulk of the extra features consist of two substantial (both around half an hour) interviews with director Michael Rowe and star Monica del Carmen. Between them, they cover all aspects of the film, from the characters and themes, to the challenges involved in making the picture on an absurdly low budget. There's also a short behind-the-scenes featurette, a trailer, and a cheesy music video for the song that plays over the closing credits.
Leap Year is released on DVD on February 28th
Buy Leap year here