Halfway through Spanish film-maker Carlos Vermut’s darkly comic thriller “Magical Girl” (2014), a paraplegic character meets one of the psychologically and physically bruised central character and delivers this following brief monologue hints at what Vermut’s ferocious tale is all about:
“It’s funny that Spain is the country where bullfighting is most popular. Do you know why Spain is in perennial clash? Because we don’t know whether we are a rational or an emotional country. The Nordic, countries for example are cerebral countries. Still, Arabs or Latinos have accepted their passionate side with no complex or guilt. They all know which side dominates. We Spaniards are in a balance hanging right in the middle. That’s the way we are, like bullfights. And what are bullfights? The depiction of struggle between instinct and technique. Between emotion and reason. We have to accept our instincts and learn to handle them like if they were a bull, so they don’t destroy us.”
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The man’s words adds a little more dimension to this dark, philosophical film, where three Spanish characters are in an internal conflict with their basic instincts. Neatly arranged into three separate chapters – “World”, “Demon” and “Flesh” – “Magical Girl” starts with Luis (Luis Bermejo), a middle-aged literary teacher, whose employment is ruined by current the financial crisis in Spain. We see him selling his intellectual, prized books for a pittance to a local bookstore, whose owner buys book by their weight. Luis is also affected by his own emotional crisis. His 12 year old daughter Alicia (Lucia Pollan) is suffering from Leukemia. She is obsessed with an anime character known as “Magical Girl” and has anime nicknames for herself (‘Yukiko’ for Alicia) and her friends.
After learning about his daughter’s obsession, Luis secretly goes through Alicia’s diary and finds about three of her desires. Luis doesn’t possess the power to grant two of those, but by some means, he could achieve the third, which is to own the very costly dress and accessories of the Magical Girl. Damian (Jose Sacristan) is a maths teacher, whose fixation on an elusive student named Barbara has landed him, for more than a decade, in the jail. He is an intellectual guy, who is really afraid of embracing his passionate, emotional side. He, in fact begs his parole officer to not let him outside as he is afraid of once again meeting Barbara. Damian’s fear, of course comes true on the outside.
He meets Barbara, but before that a chance meeting between Luis and Barbara (Marina Andruix) happens. Barbara is a depressed, housewife to a psychiatrist. Her sinister & cast down attitude is hinted earlier, when Barbara’s husband has invited a couple to their home. The couple has recently had a child and the mother asks whether Barbara wants to hold the child. The dispirited Barbara takes the baby in her hands and laughs uncontrollably. The mother asks Barbara to share the joke so that they all could laugh, to which she gleefully answers: “I can’t stop thinking of your face, if I threw the baby out of the window”. The encounter with Luis makes Barbara to wholly embrace the sinister (sadomasochistic femme fatale) side. As she has embraced her basic instinct, Barbara meets Luis (whom she calls as her ‘Guardian Angel’) to demand one last help.
Director Vermut, who has released his debut feature “Diamond Flash” online, seems to have acquired a definite cinematic voice with his second directorial effort. His moody characters and dark humor calls to mind the cinematic masters like Luis Bunuel and Michael Haneke. The interconnected and sudden flash of violence reminisces of Tarantino, although Vermut’s resolutions aren’t that of a moralist. The sadomasochism, the world of bondage and submission and the recurring animal symbolism (black bull, black lizard) suggests at the Lynchian and Cronenberg territory. Vermut perfectly handles the brief sequences in Zoco’s (the paraplegic man) mansion. The erotic menace and the sadistic sensation are evoked subtly without any sleazy, elaborate settings.
Ironies and black humor bunches around the plot structure. A jigsaw puzzle (a gift for Damian from his Parole officer) missing a single piece depicts the incomplete rehabilitated nature of Damian. When Damian makes a decision after hearing Barbara, Vermut doesn’t explain what it could be: he just shows Damian disintegrating the puzzle (subtly hinting at Damian’s choice to embrace the emotional side). In an earlier scene, Luis stops by the bookshop and picks up a single piece of a jigsaw puzzle (may not be the same piece Damian misses) and throws it away. The little casual action suggests how Luis, in the near-future, is going to bring about his own damnation as well as Damian’s. The undercurrent of financial crisis and the neo-liberal government policies are sarcastically referred to in many occasions, especially when Luis asks Barbara to put the cash inside a copy of Spanish Constitution at a public library because “nobody will read it”. It is ironic to note how the submissive (Barbara) and the vulnerable (Alicia) indirectly bring about the destruction (this element is similar to those used in noir cinema).
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Vermut’s idea of Spain as a ‘country of eternal conflict’ is meticulously transcended into each of the central characters. Barbara bears the literal and emotional scars of the past & present. Luis, the insecure father is conflicted by his intelligent as well as ominous side, while Damian disputes over the shadows of the past and the promises of the present. The tensions between the past and present works well in creating relationship dynamics (within an instant) between the three central characters. Vermut’s closure is very much like that single-piece missing jigsaw puzzle. You are left with some nagging sensation. Th ending is as unpredictable and fierce as a bullfight, where instinct and technique plays an equal part. The last geometrically precise shot of those two hands gave me a feeling that the tale has come around a full-circle. Although nothing feels extraneous or overstated in the film, those who approach “Magical Girl” as a thriller with a conventional three-part structure would be definitely disappointed.
The incendiary Spanish thriller/neo-noir Magical Girl (126 minutes) may bewitch based on the viewer’s willingness to travel into the dark & twisted cinematic territory.