A lot of people confuse the word ‘subtle’ with ‘boring.’ I hope Leap Year shuts their faces. It would be easy for an impatient soul to write off Michael Rowe’s directorial debut after the first half hour as a dry and uneventful examination of a woman milling about her house in an ongoing fit of malaise, but the watchful viewer will find that opening act rife with unsettling mysteries that are only solved through careful examination. Admittedly, it sounds like homework. But isn’t homework supposed to enrich your lives through the act of discovery? It’s not the teacher’s fault that you’d rather watch The Doodlebops than exercise your higher brain functions.
Babel’s Monica del Carmen stars as Laura, a freelance writer who spends most of her time in her apartment. Sometimes she works. Sometimes she stares out of her window and watches the asexual couple next door while touching herself. She lies to everyone she meets about her successes, be they social (she has a fictional gay best friend), financial (she pretends she has a job opportunity in Switzerland) or painfully trivial (she tells her mother she cooked a steak when she’s actually just scooping beans from a tin can). Sometimes she brings strange men home who sleep with her and then promptly leave, having got what they wanted. What does Laura want? She only explicitly says at the end of the film, and it’s a most disturbing revelation indeed.
Michael Rowe directs Leap Year – not to be confused with the Amy Adams comedy of the same name, although it would be amusing if someone rented this version by mistake – with a sharp eye for character and an intense disinterest in distraction. He makes a daring choice here, telling a story about a rich inner struggle through nothing more than an objective look at his protagonist’s actions. Over the course of the film Laura begins to perform acts of a horrifying nature – spoiling them would be an exercise in cruelty – but the means by which she got to this point in her life are skillfully hidden away in the tiny details. Occasionally one or two are highlighted in a gentle attempt to keep the audience from getting sidetracked, but Rowe never goes so far as to tip his hand. His informed but clinical look at this wounded heroine calls to mind the works of Robert Bresson, and wow, do I not say that lightly. And of course similar credit goes to Monica del Carmen, who somehow meets the unenviable challenge of carrying an entire film with mostly busywork, washing dishes at a time when most leading ladies would be flouncing about from one Meet Cute to the next, or at least getting themselves involved in a murder mystery or two, and gleefully accepting a knife in her mouth when most heroines would cry into a pint of ice cream.
Rowe’s skillful direction and del Carmen’s understated performance are marvels in this day and age, and Leap Year is something of a miracle itself. Painful and rewarding, and possibly arguing that the two qualities are wholly intertwined, like Clive Barker by way of Phillip Kaufman (although that comparison may only make sense in my head). Leap Year won the coveted Camera D’Or prize for Best First Feature at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, if you’d still like to see its credentials, but I’d let it put me down as a reference. It’s a tiny film, but it’s one of the biggest successes of the year.
Crave Online Rating: 9/10