‘Magical Girl': Toronto Review

Magical Girl Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Aqui y Alli Films

Magical Girl Still - H 2014

A darkly intriguing, expertly composed and elegantly austere moral fable 

Carlos Vermut’s much-anticipated follow-up to his cult debut "Diamond Flash"

Carlos Vermut’s debut Diamond Flash has been a cult item in Spain since its 2011 release. It is now followed by Magical Girl, a similarly distinctive, darkly quirky item that comes across as entirely assured. A spare, austere and thoroughly contemporary noirish social critique constructed on rich emotional foundations, this is a deceptively simple study of the dangerous interaction between money and emotion which feels authentically independent, the sideways slant of its director’s vision continually shifting the viewer out of the comfort zone. Slow-moving but entirely accessible, richly atmospheric but taut, Girl deserves to weave its magic in the offshore arthouse.

The opening scene establishes the quietly tense atmosphere which defines the film’s tone as schoolteacher Damian (fruity-voiced vet Jose Sacristan, playing it very seedy) asks the young Barbara (Barbara Anduix) to hand over a note which then mysteriously vanishes from her hand. She’s the film’s first magical girl (‘magical girl’ is a genre of anime of which which Vermut is a fan). The second is 12 year-old Alicia (Lucia Pollan), dying of leukemia, and who dreams of possessing a magical girl dress once worn by the Japanese singer Megumi.

The dress is extremely costly, but Alicia’s father Luis (Luis Bermejo), an unemployed schoolteacher, decides to buy it for her at any cost. While standing there forlornly holding a brick outside a jeweler’s window, he is vomited on from an upper balcony where the older Barbara (Barbara Lennie), now a committed masochist, has just thrown up, after being left by her controlling psychiatrist partner Alfredo (Israel Elejalde) and smashing her head into a mirror.

The disturbed, emotionally remote Barbara invites Luis inside, they have sex, and Luis spots the perfect opportunity to raise a little cash for Alicia’s dress by blackmailing Barbara. In one of several moments of authentic wit that stand out, Luis tells Barbara to leave the money in a library copy of the Spanish Constitution, because it’s one book that nobody will ever take out.

This is an obscure, quiet little world on the margins where everyone, as they are in the early films of David Lynch or Todd Solontz, is somehow damaged and just a little odd, but at the same time entirely recognizable. Luis, for example, doesn’t contemplate actually asking Barbara his reasons for wanting the money, and the consequences of his not doing so turn out to be pretty appalling for all concerned.

Behind the offbeat surface of Magical Girl, and underneath its extended, trembling silences, there’s a lot going on in terms of satire and critique. The supposed psychiatrist controlling his own partner with pills, Barbara’s open confession that she watches TV because she enjoys seeing people who are more miserable than she is (a tough call in Barbara's case), and a friend’s perception of Barbara’s scar as merely decorative all add up to a distinctive view of a screwed-up society, the most damning aspect of which is the increasing gap between rich and poor. The Spanish financial crisis, which has indeed damaged many lives beyond repair, is never far away, and to an extent it indeed drives the plot forward.

Despite the grueling focus on love's darker side, the early scenes show that Vermut is capable of rendering human tenderness, too. In an early exchange, Alicia asks Luis for first a cigarette and then a gin and tonic. Her father offering them to her in the knowledge that if she doesn’t try them now she never will. It is typical of the film’s strategy to shock us briefly before the underlying emotional impact is felt.

But Vermut seems more interested in the sordid than the beautiful. Too much time is dedicated to Barbara’s trips to a mansion where a very rich but unspeakably bad man, Oliver Zoco (Miguel Insua) pays lots of money to do unspeakable things to women. When he’s not doing them, he’s delivering self important speeches about rationality versus instinct in the Spanish psyche which are presumably intended to be a key to the film’s deeper purpose, but which are really just so much dramatically dead time. Zoco feels borrowed, and is the film’s weak link: for some reason, it was also deemed necessary to stick this arthouse Ernst Stavro Blofeld into a wheelchair.

Lennie’s expressionless as Barbara is deceptive, a mask for the confusion inside her just as the film’s calm, untroubled surface masks the churning turmoil beneath. Bermejo, meanwhile, has created a heartbreaking hangdog Luis, a figure marked out for misfortune at every turn.

D.P. Santiago Racaj is best-known for his work with Spanish auteur Javier Rebollo, and here employs a similarly disorienting use of space, mostly built around beautifully-framed, pale interiors. (The contrast between the impoverished austerity of Luis’s apartment and the designer austerity of Barbara’s is well-made.)

The abstract, troubling twists of the first hour are stronger than the film’s last twenty minutes, where its two-plus hours start to show the strain, with Vermut struggling to wrap things up and taking a more formulaic approach by submitting to excess. The carefully-curated soundtrack features extracts from Bach, the flamenco singer Manolo Caracol, and Pink Martini amongst others.

Production company: Aqui y Alli Films
Cast: Jose Sacristan, Barbara Lennie, Luis Bermejo, Israel Elejalde, Lucia Pollan, Barbara Anduix, Miguel Insua
Director, screenwriter, production designer: Carlos Vermut
Producers: Alvaro Portanet Hernandez, Amadeo Hernandez Bueno
Executive producer: Pedro Hernandez Santos
Director of photography: Santiago Racaj
Production designer: Montse Lacruz
Costume designer: Iratxe Sanz
Editor: Emma Tusell
Sales: Films Distribution
Rating: 14A
127 minutes