Magical Girl

****

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

"Instead of ticking off normal narrative beats, Vermut revels in humanity's natural unpredictability, often having his characters act on impulse or a whim."

Carlos Vermut's second film is a barbed and bracing black comedy thriller that fully deserved to win the San Sebastian Golden Shell. His distinctive voice and playful approach to genre make for an unsettling atmosphere that subverts expectations and keeps you guessing to the last.

Vermut deliberately evokes the idea of a jigsaw puzzle - right down to a missing piece, found by a character on the street (we the audience are not so lucky) - presenting fractured characters in maze of stories against a backdrop of the economic turmoil of modern Spain - described waspishly as a "country of eternal conflict".

Twelve-year-old Alicia (Lucía Pollán) is at an age where economic worries are a few years off yet - years that she will almost certainly not see, as she is terminally ill with leukaemia. When her dad Luis (Luis Beremejo) discovers that what she wants more than anything in the world is an ultra-expensive Manga dress, he will go to any lengths to make her wish come true. In one scathing joke aimed at a modern Spain which sees the price of everything but the value of nothing, Luis finds even his much-loved books are worth little in terms of face value - being bought by a second-hand store purely by weight (a later aside sees cash stashed in a library book on the Spanish Constitution because nobody will think to borrow it). Brought so low as to contemplate theft, he is preparing to toss a brick through a jewellery store window when fate pukes upon him from above.

This is how his path crosses that of Barbara (Barbara Lennie) a masochistic femme fatale whose physical scars are matched by a mental state that is far from normal, although as Vermut shows us, what passes for 'normal' in the modern world can be pretty horrific. What ensues is a noir-style blackmail plot that sees all the characters pushed to extreme lengths. Vermut, meanwhile, keeps our affections in conflict - one minute rooting for the hangdog Luis, the next finding ourselves wanting to shield Barbara from the harm she is inviting to come her way. Meanwhile, the film's third main adult character, Barbara's dodgy old schoolteacher Damian (Jose Sacristan), who we are introduced to in sinister fashion during the first moments of the film, will soon be out of jail and back with a vengeance.

Instead of ticking off normal narrative beats, Vermut revels in humanity's natural unpredictability, often having his characters act on impulse or a whim. As likely as not, in fact, the trigger for the action - Alicia's desire for that dress - was little more than a passing phase. This approach makes for exhilirating moments but also leads to one or two problems in the film's last third which struggles to sustain the beguiling web of amoral intrigue he has carefully constructed up to that point. As Vermut slaps things into the darkest possible territory, some of his audience may lose their willingness to play along, but many more will see the film's constant shifts and mysteries as an invitation to watch it again and again.

It may not be full-on magic but Vermut has already become something of a Spanish cult figure after his first (undistributed) film Diamond Flash became an internet sensation and there are enough neat tricks here to suggest he is shaping up to be a formidable voice on the independent film scene in years to come. In the meantime, this is still one hell of a ride.

Reviewed on: 24 Feb 2015
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Three people become caught in a complex web of blackmail.

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