What a piece of work is a man. A species that evolved amidst the mighty trees of a world-spanning tropical forest now spreads across this planet like an impenetrable oil slick. Our litter fouls the highest peaks, our scientific instruments plumb the deepest depths. We go everywhere. We adapt. We feed. We breed. We spread. And yet, despite our adaptability and despite our ambition, the majority of our species now live in cities. We could live anywhere and yet we choose to shut ourselves away in cramped concrete boxes. Why is this?
Despite most films being set in some kind of urban environment, few of them manage to capture what it really feels like to live in such an alien and bizarre landscape. Roman Polanski’s Apartment trilogy perhaps comes closest but Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Tenant (1976) all stress the Otherness of city life while down-playing its attractions. Patrick Keiller’s London (1994) may well skewer the combination of hollowness and (largely fictitious) potential for adventure and fun that comprise London but its detached narration and photographic sensibility makes its message cerebral rather than instinctual. Analytical rather than subjective.
Winner of the 2010 Camera D’Or award at the Cannes film festival for best debut feature, Michael Rowe’s Leap Year (a.k.a. Año bisiesto) seeks to capture the elusive charms of city life by depicting a life characterised by a profound ambivalence to human intimacy. An ambivalence that expresses itself in every aspect of a young woman’s life.
The film opens in almost prosaic style with a snapshot of urban loneliness. Two people cross paths in a supermarket. He is completely oblivious but She allows her eyes to linger. Eyes that appreciate. Eyes that yearn. As She pays and leaves the shop She glances around her but He has gone. She looks just a little bit sad. Another missed connection… Another abortive chance for love.
From there, the film takes us to the young woman’s apartment and we never leave it.
Laura (Monica del Carmen) is in her thirties, she lives on her own a long way from her family and her job as a freelance journalist means that she has little contact with her co-workers except by phone. Every day, Laura speaks to her mother and to her friends on the phone but they do not visit. The only human contact Laura seems to have comes in the shape of a series of anonymous men who return to her flat for sex before sneaking out in the morning. Laura is clearly lonely. But she is quite a lot more than that.
As she crosses off the days on her calendar — inching ever closer to the 29th of February, a day with initially unexplained significance — Laura begins to emerge as a someone who is deeply ambivalent about human contact. Indeed, when the men sneak out of her apartment she allows them to go without a hint of regret. When they bother to ask her her name she expresses genuine surprise as to why they’d be interested. When asked by her friends or family what she is up to, Laura begins to lie about her social life, transforming her apartment into the heart of a vibrant and mutually supportive community filled with friends and parental figures. When Laura gets horny she masturbates whilst spying on the couple across the way as they sit watching TV.
Laura, like many city-dwellers, is caught between two stools. On the one hand, she is lonely and in profound need of some sort of emotional communion. On the other hand, she is wary of other people and so utterly self-reliant that she has allowed her old social networks to atrophy. Indeed, despite the bleakness of Laura’s life, there is little sense that she is in any way unhappy… she is just isolated. Willingly isolated but regretfully alone.
This ambivalence towards the isolation inherent in city life forms the core of Leap Year’s intellectual and aesthetic power.
Leap Year is shot with a complete lack of contrivance and with complete naturalism. When Laura strips off she is just as likely to scratch her crotch or pick her nose as she is to have sex. The film’s sexual content is blisteringly graphic but presented without romance and without excitement. Sex is simply a part of Laura’s life, no different to when she is working on her laptop, watching TV or lying to her mother about the state of her social life. Indeed, what makes Leap Year so cinematically powerful and — at times — disturbing, is not the graphic nature of its sex scenes, but the absolute intimacy of its portrayal of Laura’s domestic arrangements. Rowe shows us every aspect of Laura’s life from sex to work to getting dressed to eating to pissing. There is no aspect of Laura’s life that we are not privy to. Even the cinematography goes out of its way to provide us with access by refusing to drop into any particular set of shots or angles on Laura’s life: She sits on the sofa, she sits at a desk, she lies on her bed, she cooks, she showers. We are shown these goings on repeatedly but never from the same angle twice. This not only shows us all of Laura’s apartment, it also prevents the film from ever feeling staged. Every shot is candid. Every shot is naturalistic. Every shot is intimate.
Rowe’s focus upon mundane realities means that, as an audience, we enjoy a greater degree of intimacy with Laura than any of her friends and family. As with films such as Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Innocence (2004) and Eric Nicholas’s Alone With Her (2007), such graphic intimacy makes for a distinctly unsettling cinematic experience. By the time Rowe is trapping us in Laura’s eye-line as she is being taken from behind, we start to squirm. TMI. The eeriness of this experience both reflects Laura’s own attitudes towards intimacy and explains why it is that she tends to keep people at arms’ length: Intimacy is both thrilling and somehow appalling.
Laura keeps her distance from friends, family and lovers alike until she brings home Arturo (Gustavo Sánchez Parra). Initially, Arturo comes across as another nameless and faceless stunt-cock. An entirely disposable figure who satiates Laura’s desire for sex just as the TV dinners she buys satiates her desire for food. However, as he is fucking her he begins to slap her arse. As though breaking the shell of an egg, these slaps loosen Laura’s desire for control and the following day she mistakenly calls her boss “Arturo” over the telephone. This is unheard of. Normally Laura is uninterested in her lovers’ names and for her to accidentally call a co-worker by one of their names suggests that Arturo has made it through the emotional outskirts of Lauraville.
As the days continue to slip by and February 29th looms larger and larger, Arturo and Laura’s relationship does not so much bloom as escalate. It escalates in violence and it escalates in intimacy: Slaps turn into choking, choking turns into whipping and whipping turns into beatings just as chats turn into shared drinks, shared drinks turn into pillow talk and pillow talk turns into gentle spooning in front of the TV. The violence not only accompanies the intimacy, it is co-existent with it. For Laura and Arturo, the violence is an expression of intimacy just as much as spooning or the sharing of intimate secrets. You cannot have one without the other.
As Laura shares more and more of herself with Arturo she is also sharing more of herself with the audience. This feeds in to the film’s positioning of the audience as domestic voyeurs but it also opens up the film’s somewhat obscure second front.
While the film’s foreground is very much dominated by a picture of the conflicted attitudes to intimacy required to survive in an overcrowded and overwhelming urban environment, Leap Year also seeks to explain why it is that Laura conflates emotional intimacy with physical violence. This is in and of itself problematic as it serves to limit the film’s scope. Indeed, by seeking to engage with Laura’s personal history, the film draws attention away from its wider commentary upon contemporary attitudes to intimacy. In short, Laura’s conflation of intimacy and violence ceases to be about our conflicted attitudes and starts to be about hers alone. Also problematic is the fact that when moving out of a symbolic register and into a more psychological one, Rowe’s aloofness begins to play against him.
Early in the film, Laura hangs up on her mother when her mother reveals that rather than going solely to her, their father’s property will be used to build a house for both her and her brother. This annoys Laura thereby suggesting a degree of perceived entitlement to the land. As the film moves forward, Laura slowly reveals a complex relationship with her father. Indeed, at various times the film hints at incest by associating Arturo with a picture of Laura’s father and by having Laura refuse to reveal the identity of the man who took her virginity. Rowe attempts to associate the escalating violence between Arturo and Laura with the looming 29th of February, the anniversary of Laura’s father’s death. Indeed, in the film’s most horrifying scene, Laura begs Arturo to slit her throat and ‘fuck her corpse’. Laura’s face is one of pure delight and adoration but Arturo’s is one of abject terror and intense sexual arousal. Again, an intense need for intimacy co-exists with an intense sense of alienation. While certainly emotionally harrowing, this scene further displays Rowe’s eye for thematically engaged composition.
As Laura begs Arturo to kill her there is a sense that two worlds are over-lapping. A world of sexual roleplay and a real world. Arturo’s conflicted feelings stem from the fact that he no longer knows whether Laura is simply saying these things to turn him on or whether she is saying them because she actually wants him to slit her throat. While the shot is framed so as to place Laura and Arturo’s faces in the middle of the field, Rowe also allows the tip of Arturo’s penis to creep further and further into shot as Laura’s pleading escalates and Arturo gets closer and closer to orgasm. If this slow genital creep reflects Arturo’s growing realisation that Laura may not be play-acting then it also reflects our own growing sense of dis-orientation. Indeed, we know that Laura lies to keep people at arm’s length but, up until that point, the line between truth and falsity had always been quite clear in her dealings with Arturo and it has always been clear in her dealings with us as an audience: We had complete access.
By keeping Arturo’s cock on the borders of the frame, Rowe is muddying the waters. Intimacy, he suggests, is not simply a matter of access or honesty but of interpretation. Arturo has gotten further past Laura’s defences than anyone else and we have been allowed to see every detail of her life but there is still a gulf separating us from Laura. A gulf that simply does not allow us to make sense of her motivations and her desires. It could very well be that she always planned to commit suicide on the 29th of February (but if so then why did she worry about losing her job?). It could very well be that when she was laying out Arturo’s clean clothes, latex gloves and butcher’s knife, she was hoping he would kill her (but it could also be that she is escalating the use of props in the couple’s sex play). It could very well be that when she breaks down in tears at the end of the film it is because she is still alive (but it could simply be because the terrified Arturo stood her up or because she suddenly feels the weight of loneliness pressing down upon her). All of these things could well be true but they could just as easily be false but, despite having intimate access to every detail of Laura’s life, we simply do not have enough information to draw a reliable conclusion.
The camera may not lie but it certainly does not reveal all.
Leap Year is a fiercely intelligent, magnificently photographed and flawlessly acted piece of cinema that bodes well for Michael Rowe’s future career but I do find myself feeling somewhat ambivalent about Rowe’s decision to muddy the waters by raising the issue of incest. By raising the question of Laura’s relationship with her father and then refusing to resolve it, Rowe comes dangerously close to overwhelming the film’s intellectual payload. One should be walking out of the cinema thinking about Laura’s relationship with the outside world and not plucking at the dangling threads of her daddy issues. But then perhaps this ambivalence is the point… Laura’s relationship with her father is just Too Much Information.