Thursday, June 23, 2011

Michael Rowe's LEAP YEAR: a difficult and challenging look at an S&M relationship


When we first see Laura, the full-bodied if a bit dowdy young women at the center of LEAP YEAR (Año bisiesto), she seems an odd choice for the lead character in a film about an unusual sexual relationship. She appears to work as some sort of "reporter," has an oddly distant phone relationship with her mother, is quite close to her brother, enjoys looking surreptitiously down at her elderly neighbors' patio and -- as we soon learn -- is given to relatively anonymous one-night-stands with men whom she brings home after tarting herself up for an evening out.

The film's director and co-writer (with Lucia Carreras), Michael Rowe, is shown at left. Even as a bottle-blond, he looks darkly handsome enough to have been an actor, but evidently he chose film-making instead. Leap Year, his first endeavor, is by any standard a very good movie. Its subject matter (a sexual affair that turns heavily sadistic/masochistic) and its visual handling of that subject matter (full-frontal, no holds barred) almost guaran-tees that the film will cause attention and create a buzz. And yet Rowe's storytelling style -- carefully obser-ved and quietly told -- helps makes even the heavy-duty sex scenes surprisingly real and, most important, deeply, genuinely (and often uncomfortably) "felt."

By the end of Leap Year (the film takes place in that special year -- about one in every four -- in which an extra day is added to the month of February), Mr. Rowe has brought us up close to his character, Laura (above and below), about as intimately as we could hope. And not just to Laura herself, but to her family -- only one of whom, her beloved brother, we actually meet.

We meet a few of her sex objects, too, but it is not until the third or fourth one comes upon the scene (maybe a half-hour into things) that one of her "men" actually sticks around. This is due to the quietly growing allure of s&m, the former for her new man, Arturo, and the latter for Laura herself. (Yes, those are cigarette burns, below, on her breasts.)

Leap Year is one of the most sexually arousing movies I have seen -- up to a point. Once the s&M begins, not being into that, I usually turn off. Yet the gift that Mr. Rowe's film bestows is to allow us to enter that world and understand it at least well enough to accept it -- on screen and for now -- without running for the nearest exit.

Laura's character achieves a surprising fullness, thanks to the filmmakers' skills and to that of his leading lady  Monica del Carmen. Ms del Carmen, above and above, brings us up so close to the details of Laura's life and to her needs and desires, that we go right along with it all, up until...  This actress also gives one of the most arousing performances, sexually speaking, that I have ever seen. Clothed, she's perfectly presentable (except perhaps when seen picking her nose); unclothed and in heat, she is simply extraordinary. She lets down not just the nudity barrier, but the one that usually covers the soul.

Likewise, in the role of her new paramour, Gustavo Sánchez Parra (above) from La misma luna, My Mexican Shivah and Casi divas) maintains just the right balance of secrecy combined with a yearning for intimacy. As crazy sexually as these two get, they never lose their humanity. Consequently, we want the best for them, even as we live in fear of what that "best" might be.

By the finale, the suspense has reached major proportions, as we cushion ourselves for the worst. (Or is it the best? You'd have to be very masochistic to welcome this.)  And yet we never let go of our caring for this pair. Which is a major accomplishment, I think, on the part of Rowe, who quietly takes us deep into dysfunctional-family territory, in one of the subtlest ways I have seen handled in a movie to date.

Leap Year (which is not to be confused with that Amy Adams/Matthew Goode movie of the same name, also made in 2010), from Strand Releasing, in Spanish with English subtitles, opens tomorrow, Friday, June 24, in New York City at the Cinema Village. And elsewhere, soon,  I hope.

2 comments:

Ron Harper said...

This review is right on. Rowe's entry into the film industry is successful. If there is one word that describes Leap Year it is...cerebral. It is thought provoking with multiple scenes where one is actually living day to day with Laura played by Monica del Carmen, wondering how far this unusual relationship will evolve. The message in the film is made clear especially at the end. Overall, nice job.

James van Maanen said...

Thanks for posting, Ron. After nearly three years, Leap Year remains one of the best films I have seen in all that time. It's remarkable. Glad you liked it, too!