This review was originally written for Banterflix. See here.
A missing jigsaw piece is all it takes, a jagged hole in a picture that prevents completion. This motif pops up time and again in Magical Girl—a dark, elaborately contrived black comedy that uses misdirection and sleight of hand like they’re going out of fashion. And it loves it. It perhaps loves it more than audiences will love its star, Bárbara Lennie—a perturbed, enigmatic housewife that becomes blackmailed into raising money through less than congenial circumstances.
The film takes a page out of the old film-noir tradition but attempts a “neo” twist to make it a member of the more contemporary double-barrelled genre. But it’s much more restrained in delivery than its pulpy roots. The film ditches heightened sensibilities for a slower, more meditative approach.
The film is a coolly calculated exercise in genre-subversion, building friction between audiences’ expectations towards certain traditional character types—the terminally ill little girl, Alicia (Lucia Pollan); the despondent father, Luis (Luis Bermejo); the precarious housewife, Barbara (Lennie) and the rehabilitating ex-prisoner, Damian (Jose Sacristan)—and their often illogical, impetuous behaviour.
The tone of Magical Girl swings from darkly comic to just plain dark, sometimes within a single scene. One plotline contains shades of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, which should give you an idea of the type of world Barbara is getting mixed up in. The film revels in leading you down a path that appears familiar at first, but ends up as a dead end, time and time again. It’s the second feature from writer-director Carlos Vermut who has clearly been brushing up on the Coen brothers’ back-catalogue. It’s made with confidence and bravado but is ultimately more concerned with shocks and surprises than anything else.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as I’m sure Hitchcock would agree. But Magical Girl has nowhere near the flare or sophistication of a classic Hitchcockian thriller. It overstays its welcome by about twenty minutes and sadly squanders the cute, neo-noir set-up that looked so promising during the film’s first half. Magical Girl decides, instead, to go out with a bang. But, as Hitchcock said, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”
The film is handsomely lensed by Santiago Racaj, giving it a crisp, icy ambiance. The camera in Magical Girl is rarely intrusive. Many scenes are played out in long, extended takes that help build tension and atmosphere. However, this technique, although effective in some respects, often leaves the staging wooden and inorganic. Unlike the films of Michael Haneke or Steve McQueen, the minimalistic camera movement doesn’t necessarily accentuate or reflect the characters’ mentalities, nor does it provide a visual summation of power dynamic within the frame.
Nevertheless, the film does include several moments of witty social commentary. One moment stand outs out in particular: Luis tells Barbara that the money he demanded is to be left in a public library—inside the spine of a copy of the Spanish Constitution. The reason? Because it’s the one book that nobody will ever take out.
Vermut’s skill in being able to subvert audience anticipation is certainly commendable. It’s not an easy thing to do. At about half way through the film, our allegiance towards Luis (a man whose desperation gets the better of him) is shifted towards Barbara, and our impressions of these characters only continue to evolve as they stamp on shovel blades, digging themselves deeper and deeper into trouble. And because it’s noir, once you dig yourself in, you might as well get comfy because there’s only one way out: and it too involves a hole in the ground—six feet, to be precise.