Don’t go looking for relatable human behavior in “Magical Girl.” There is none to be found, which is both an asset and a weakness of Spanish director Carlos Vermut’s sophomore feature — an elaborately contrived, imagination-dependent dark comedy that operates through sleight of hand, misleading auds into following a preteen leukemia patient’s dying wish while it assembles another, far more sinister secondary narrative deep in its viewers’ collective subconscious. Certainly not for everyone, this deliberately “wrong” cult offering (which won prizes for best film and director at San Sebastian) should entice outre arthouse distribs capable of marketing to “Dogtooth” admirers and/or those who can stomach the unsettling “Zed’s dead” detour from “Pulp Fiction.”
Vermut comes to cinema from a background in comicbook illustration, and though he brings a strong visual sense to his bigscreen work (including his low-budget debut, “Diamond Flash”), the helmer doesn’t allow style to steal his pic’s thunder. Elegantly lensed by Santiago Racaj, the crisp-looking “Magical Girl” is a carefully calculated exercise in genre-movie subversion, pitting what we think we know about its various characters types — terminally ill Alicia (Lucia Pollan), her desperate dad Luis (Luis Bermejo), unstable housewife Barbara (Barbara Lennie) and recovering ex-con Damian (Jose Sacristan) — against the irrational unpredictability of their actions.
For three of these characters, their motives are clear: Alicia merely wants to survive until her 13th birthday, and failing that, she’d settle for a ridiculously expensive costume inspired by her favorite Japanese anime cartoon, “Magical Girl Yukiko”; Luis wants to make his dying daughter happy; and Damian is prepared to do whatever Barbara desires. But what is it that Barbara wants? An icy beauty with a volatile personality disorder, Barbara serves as the film’s wild-card femme fatale, making her disorienting entrance by vomiting onto Luis just as he’s about to rob the jewelry store situated directly below the balcony of her posh apartment.
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Simultaneously off-putting and amusing, this particular scene represents everything that does and doesn’t work about the film. We’ve already observed that Luis, an out-of-work schoolteacher, has almost no money, selling off his extensive book collection by the kilo to raise the money he and Alicia need to survive. Unable to afford the dress’ outrageous €7,000 price tag, Luis decides to toss a brick through a jewelry-store window. In the real world, no upstanding citizen would make this choice, just as no real-world jewelry store would leave its most valuable inventory on display at night to be so easily taken.
And yet, before our plausibility detectors have a chance to cry foul, Vermut introduces a twist — the surprise vomit shower — that sends things careening in an unforeseen new direction. Spewing apologies, Barbara invites Luis up to her apartment, where she seduces him (again, not a logical decision on her part), but then, just as we’re about to object, the ground shifts again, and Luis demands cash, unless she’d like for her husband to learn of her infidelity (an even unlikelier scheme to buy Alicia’s costume than the thwarted robbery). Judging by Barbara’s relatively lavish lifestyle, Luis figures she can afford it. No one could possibly anticipate the way she actually plans to get the money, partly because no one tries to erase the evidence of having sex by willfully putting oneself in the most sexually vulnerable situation imaginable — her choice coming across all the more perverse given the gaps Vermut leaves for us to fill in.
With the arrival of its late-developing blackmail plot, “Magical Girl” veers into (potentially) more familiar film-noir territory, though Vermut rejects conventional thriller tropes. Rather than manufacturing cheap tension by inventing a looming threat for his characters to avoid, he tickles our curiosity with where everything might be heading, then slows the already fragmented storyline down enough that we find ourselves squirming to get past the scene at hand and on to whatever surprise lies ahead — a sense of holding one’s breath enhanced by the overlong pic’s lack of a score.
It’s an interesting strategy: Almost without our realizing it, the film shifts its allegiance from Luis (naturally sympathetic, if not altogether likable, considering his daughter’s situation) to Barbara, and our feelings will continue to evolve as the characters make choices that dig them in deeper. Still, at roughly the midway point, we find ourselves aligned with a figure who’s intriguingly difficult to pin down amid an irreverent fable that’s shaping up to be both funnier and more cruel than we could have foreseen.
At once brittle and unbreakable, an object of desire despite the scars covering nearly her entire body (the latest being a nasty gash down the center of her forehead), Barbara holds a strange power over men, including those in the audience. Vermut leverages her allure to intriguing effect, though the helmer’s inexperience shows when working with the rest of his cast. Father-daughter duo Bermejo and Pollan have it especially tough, left struggling to convey the truth of characters who have no basis in reality. Like the art of prestidigitation, cinema takes practice to perfect, and Vermut’s unusual routine needs more work, though from the look of things, his career promises some spectacular tricks ahead.