Laura (Monica del Carmen), is a single, 25-year-old journalist who lives in a small apartment in Mexico City. After a long series of flings, Laura meets Arturo (Gustavo Sánchez Parra). The first time they make love, Arturo touches here in ways that overwhelm her. Thus begins an intense, passionate and sexual romance, which mixes pleasure, pain and love. In the course of days, which she carefully crosses out on her calendar, Laura’s secret past resurfaces, driving Arturo to extremes.

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Punishing in more ways than one.

HOLA MEXICO FILM FESTIVAL: Leap Year is a slow-moving and depressing Mexican film about a sad and lonely single woman called Laura (Monica del Carmen) who works from her home as a freelance journalist and indulges in escalatingly violent series of S&M episodes.

Her sexual behaviour – which includes consenting to being punched and urinated upon, amongst other even more extreme desires – is an apparent balm for her solitary existence and emotional hang-ups, the latter rooted in her past in the provinces. (Beyond references to her late father and a family dispute over an inherited property, the film declines to elucidate.)

For reasons best known to its members, a Cannes jury decided to award this pretentiously grimy endurance test the Camera d’Or for best feature directed by a first-timer – Ballarat-born expatriate Michael Rowe.

Apart from the opening scene, where Laura eyes up a young man while shopping at the supermarket, Rowe’s camera never leaves the character’s Mexico City apartment. She never seems to do any work, apart from fielding occasional phone calls from editors, and only seems to go outside to pick up men (presumably at the Mexican equivalent of Coles). Much of her time is spent gazing obsessively from her upper-storey window at the neighbours – not that she ever sees anything interesting. For the first 18 minutes we don’t hear a single voice other than hers.

When her torrid sex sessions appear on screen they quickly start to fit a pattern – especially when a newcomer, Arturo, enters the scene. The pair engage in increasingly rough sex that initially looks like abuse or rape – an impression dispersed on each occasion when she cuddles up to him in the bruise-filled afterglow.

Laura is still upset by the death of her father and is marking off the days of the calendar until February 29 – the fourth anniversary of his death and the first she will be able to commemorate. (The date falls on a leap year – hence the film’s title.) As the day approaches, the film accrues a feeling of dread. It becomes clear the woman is one sick puppy and events might take an especially gruesome turn, though the outcome I will leave viewers to discover for themselves.

Rowe has been quoted as saying that in Leap Year he has 'tried to make the most Mexican film in history,'' a statement that, in the absence of any obvious surface connections to his adopted country, indicates a certain allegorical ambition. This and the film’s calculated provocation, particularly its use of transgressive sex, indicates its probable role model to be the work of the Mexican-born Carlos Reygadas, especially Battle in Heaven, with its deliberately unerotic sex involving flabbily real bodies.

It’s no insult to the actor who plays her to observe that Laura is no great beauty and is packing the pounds. Clearly she was selected for the role in order to subvert expectations of what a sexually transgressive film should look like and help distance it from inevitable accusations that it’s tantamount to porn. These are among the least erotically arousing scenes ever filmed. But Rowe lacks the brilliant technique, the vivid imagination and symbolic richness that make Reygadas’s work memorable. Underlined by his refusal to even use a music score or effective sound design is the sense that here is a filmmaker who wants to earn his stripes by making the audience suffer as much as his heroine. He succeeds.