Minimalism on a microbudget, Michael Rowe’s Camera d’Or winning Mexican debut Leap Year is a masochist’s delight. With an Australian fascination for light.
Venus in Fears by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
There’s a little masochism in everyone. Isn’t there? I mean, horror films thrive on our desire to escape the safe world of convention and enter a dark realm of cathartic thrills. So it’s perhaps not by accident that Michael Rowe’s Camera d’Or winning story of sadomasochism finds such a lusty bedfellow in cinema. His debut feature is pleasurably uncomfortable and digitally intimate, as Rowe’s camera dominates Laura’s Mexico City apartment, lying in wait for her sexual adventure with Arturo to begin. And whether we’re complicit spectator or mere observer, Leap Year is an engagingly minimalist fantasy.
Laura is a freelance journalist, marooned in her flat night and day – eating, sleeping, writing, coupling. Her only connections to the outside world – the TV, telephone and courtyard window. She spies on her neighbours, a contented elderly couple with a garden flat – a fantasy of third-age companionship only marred by the woman’s disappearance one day. And the young couple opposite who snuggle on the sofa and fight, their muffled relationship a snooper’s soap opera of secrets and sighs.
Her telephone conversations with Mama back in the pueblo are no better – helpless wish-fulfilment as she imagines a better life for herself – supping on steak instead of instant noodles or meeting Miguel and his boyfriend on St Valentine’s Day instead of staying home alone. When she’s let go by her editor, she lies to preserve her dignity, claiming she has plenty of other work, but when he calls again to offer her a consignment, knowing the end is nigh she elaborately explains her plans to emigrate to Switzerland to work in the Embassy – a blustering fantasy to raise herself in the others’ eyes. Her lies just another line of defence in her fortress home, protecting herself from the bad (and the good) of everyday people.
Leap Year is grippingly observational as Laura, stuck in a bored, empty existence, paces her flat, sullen and envious. And Rowe has a meticulous eye for minimalist detail, for documenting woman under her own private eiderdown. Laura’s telephone conversations are gripping yet banal, as she twiddles her hair, paints her toenails – with palpable disregard for her interlocutor. Occasionally, she risks a sortie for provisions – edible, professional or sexual. Like a feminist neanderthal, dragging her one-night-stand booties back into her cave. Perfunctory or extramarital, her relations are bathetic, her lovers quickly slipping back into the Mexican night.
Until one day she meets Arturo, an alluringly wild lonely heart. Their sex is not so very different from the others, until a bum slap escalates into asphyxiation, golden showers and Laura’s suicide fantasies of having her throat slit during intercourse. But Arturo’s different from the other johns. He stays for a postcoital beer, and comes back for more – Laura throwing down her long, flaxen keys to her saviour prince below. There’s even some touching shoots of love, as Laura buys him whisky, knowing he likes it. And they curl up on each other’s laps, looking for protection. It’s a slowburn yearning for a normal life, for loving companionship, a shangri-la out of her reach until she lays her demons to bed.
And Laura’s debilitating devils all belong to daddy. The telltale heart that beats its way through the film is her calendar, marking off the days to the anniversary of her father’s death four years ago, on 29th February. It’s an enigmatic conceit, the leap year marking the gap between the death’s passing in time and Laura’s stasis in grief. It’s a discrepancy which carries over into her relationship with her father; adoring his enshrined photograph, but abused by him from the age of 12. And it’s a confusion Arturo steps into, his shiny sweet wrapper relics added to the shrine. Laura’s sadomasochism is an ingrained blend of love and violence with nowhere to go but death.
But Arturo draws the line at blood and never returns to end their game. Laura bawls like a baby, her ploy confounded. Deserted for a second time, she’s forced to live and confront her soul’s disquiet with her brother’s sudden reappearance. Not yet to escape this mortal coil. February does indeed turn into March, and as the neighbours’ plants start to sprout, there’s a glimmer of rosy hope in this otherwise cautionary tale of scarlet and black.
Arturo’s ‘master’ motives are never explained. But with beautifully believable performances from Monica del Carmen and Gustavo Sánchez Parra, it’s almost unnecessary, a balletic meeting of kindred souls rent apart by an insoluble death drive. Rowe’s very Australian fascination with light (and lens flares) brings a luminescence to what, in other hands, could be a drab flat-bound drama. And he also creates his own narrative ripples, this time tonal, with sadomasochism providing the leap-day thrills to Laura’s otherwise dreary 24/366 existence. But Leap Year is a carefully crafted, well-observed chamber piece offering a giddy blend of minimalism and wild extravagance. For libertarians and libertines everywhere.
Leap Year is released in the UK on 26th November 2010