Claude Miller’s “Of Women and Magic” is a succinct, dryly played, often laugh-out-loud funny movie that nearly disappears in a puff of digital smoke. The cautionary tale of one woman’s mysterious ailments and her bizarre hospital stay, whimsical yet spooky vid-lensed film is undone by an annoyingly fuzzy visual strategy that severely cramps its style. Despite a warm reception of the warts-and-all 35mm transfer in some quarters at its Berlin festival preem (it won the Fipresci, or international critics’ prize), this TV production is destined to stay there and is thus unlikely to be as broadly acclaimed as some of Miller’s recent work, such as “Class Trip.”
Crumbling under the pressures of family, a married lover and imminent exams, 30-year-old anthropology student Claire (Anne Brochet) is suffering from migraines and fainting spells. After a series of strange, confrontational interviews with Dr. Fish (Yves Jacques), she’s sent to a neurological hospital for a month of treatment and recuperation. Sharing her room is Odette (Mathilde Seigner), who is newly paralyzed in both legs, and Eleonore (Annie Noel), a seemingly harmless senior citizen in the throes of apparent dementia.
As Claire’s symptoms refuse to abate and the roommates begin to grate on one another, it becomes obvious there’s much more to Eleonore than can be seen — or explained. Brochet has a look of mournful, wide-eyed bewilderment at her predicament, and Jacques’ Dr. Fish is every patient’s worst nightmare: an efficient, insensitive, slightly sinister flake. Yet the centerpiece of the film is the work between Brochet and Noel; latter steals every scene she’s in as the unrestrainable Eleonore.
Yet sly script and terrific perfs would play even more sharply if the images were crisp. Pic is a pale imitation of the legitimate groundbreaking work done by the Dogma 95 gang and others, specifically Lars Von Trier’s similarly themed “The Kingdom.” Here, the visual strategy of shaky camera, vid effects and pale, washed-out images couldn’t be more unsuited to the nicely calibrated material. Even the English title is needlessly murky; literal translation of original moniker, “Room of the Magicians,” seems closer to the ironic point of a medical system — and, indeed, a world — gone crazily awry.