Winner of the Camera D’Or for Best First Feature at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, the bracing Mexican psychodrama Leap Year unfolds almost entirely in a dim, seedy one-room apartment that doubles as living space and state of mind. With equal debt owed to two mid-’70s touchstones—half to Last Tango In Paris, half to Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai Du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles—writer-director Michael Rowe patiently details the grinding routine of its 25-year-old occupant, Monica del Carmen, a freelance journalist by day and an insatiable nymphet by night. Adopting a long master-shot style similar to Mexico’s reigning sex-and-death maestro Carlos Reygadas (Japón, Battle In Heaven), Rowe follows del Carmen through dreary afternoons as she gathers quotes and dutifully clacks away on business articles like “30 Tips To Beat The Recession.” Then at night, she puts on low-cut dresses, slathers herself in perfume, and returns later with random men for sexual encounters that leave her feeling varying degrees of unsatisfied.
All that changes when her latest partner, the quiet, inscrutable Gustavo Sánchez Parra, ups the ante considerably: An affair that begins with a little S&M grows more perverse and dangerous with each session, and it’s not clear who, if anyone, is in control. Though the title and its significance suggest an answer, Rowe wisely refrains from making it too explicit, focusing instead on the fascinating evolution of del Carmen and Parra’s relationship. In the meantime, Rowe parses out information about her younger brother, her late father, and her tenuous line of work that helps complete the puzzle.
Never to be confused for the rom-com starring Amy Adams—though that would be the mother of all video-store mix-ups—Leap Year lets actions speak louder than words, and the actions here are shockingly explicit. When del Carmen does get a monologue, it’s an astonishing piece of writing and acting, revealing a fantasy choked in sadness, desire, and a dwindling sense of self-worth. Rowe makes her psychology a little easier to unpack than it might be, but Leap Year doesn’t go where it appears to be heading, and del Carmen’s wrenching performance is somehow both raw and completely mysterious. She’s an open question the film takes its time answering.