Yesterday I cited The Spectacular Now as one of the rare recent movies shot in wide-screen whose close-ups are as impressive as its long shots. I could have also cited Sebastian Silva’s Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus, which I reviewed about six weeks back. Watching the film again after writing about it, I was struck by how Silva’s compositions mirrored the overall dramatic arc. For roughly its first third, Crystal Fairy transpires mainly in medium shots that present characters in small groups; as the main characters hit the road for the north of Chile, Silva introduces more and more vistas, which offset the human drama. When Silva employs close-ups in the film’s emotional climax—the title character’s unexpected confession by a campfire—the change in visual syntax heightens the sense of revelation. The close-ups have a tragic tinge as well, isolating Crystal Fairy in her painful memory.
Silva foreshadows this moment about a half hour earlier with a shot of the middle-aged country woman whose cactus the main characters steal. In this close-up, which occurs just after the kids run off with her plant, the character transforms from a comic dupe to a lonely, vulnerable human being. This minor gesture, which effects a brief-yet-exciting change in tone, reveals great sympathy on the filmmaker’s part. It creates the impression that, if he had the time, Silva might investigate every life that passes before his camera.
One can feel the same sympathy in Crystal Fairy‘s companion film Magic Magic, which recently came out on DVD. That this gorgeous-looking movie (shot primarily by the great Christopher Doyle) was denied a U.S. theatrical release and dumped by its distributor constitutes one of the biggest cinematic disappointments of the year. Though Magic Magic is an art movie through and through, Sony Pictures has released the film via its genre-movie label Destination Films and packaged it like a cheapo Evil Dead knockoff. In fact, I didn’t learn it was coming out at all until I saw it at the RedBox in the parking lot of my neighborhood supermarket. At least Magic Magic is in good company—last month the latest Francis Ford Coppola film (I repeat, the latest Francis Ford Coppola film) also made its Chicago debut via RedBox.
To advertise Magic Magic as a horror film is misleading. The tone may be eerie, but it isn’t particularly scary. Almost all of the frightening stuff takes place in the main character’s mind—and unlike Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, its obvious forebear, the heroine’s unstable perspective doesn’t engulf the entire movie around it. Alicia (Juno Temple) is a shy young woman from California who goes to Chile to visit her cousin (Emily Browning), who’s studying in Santiago for a semester. As soon as she arrives, she finds herself on a road trip to the south with her cousin’s boyfriend (Augustin Silva, the director’s younger brother), his sister (Catalina Sandino Moreno, of Maria Full of Grace), and a wealthy American friend (Michael Cera, nearly as obnoxious here as he was in Crystal Fairy). Alicia starts on the wrong foot with all of them—her cousin unexpectedly stays behind in Santiago, turning her into a social charity case—and things only get worse when they arrive at their destination, an isolated cabin owned by the boyfriend’s parents. For days Alicia is unable to sleep, which makes her increasingly on edge. This, in turn, further strains her relationship with the well-to-do strangers.
These strangers aren’t exactly menacing, but they’re all somewhat repulsive. Like Cera’s character in Crystal Fairy, they’re models of unself-conscious privilege, and Silva—who comes from a well-to-do background himself—portrays them in convincing detail. Magic Magic‘s air of dread corresponds to Alicia’s sinking feeling that she doesn’t belong here—not in Chile, not among the wealthy, not around her cousin’s romantic affairs, and certainly not near the unhealthy sexual tension that exists between Cera and Augustin Silva’s characters. (This is a movie the great Claude Chabrol might have admired.) Is Alicia unhinged from the start or do circumstances drive her to madness? It’s never quite clear, and Silva plays on this ambiguity to vertiginous effect.
Adding to the sense of vertigo is the fact that Silva’s directorial perspective keeps shifting. Magic Magic puts us in Alicia’s shoes for a bit, then considers how the other characters see her, but never sticks with one point of view for very long. This might explain why some reviewers have described Magic Magic as a failed horror film. Personally, I regard the seeming lack of focus as another sign of Silva’s underlying compassion for his subjects. Here’s a filmmaker who’s never content to present a character’s emotions as a given—he needs to contextualize them in the feelings of the people around her. Like Crystal Fairy, Magic Magic looks altogether grander on a second viewing—what seem on the first go-round like stray bits of characterization take their place in the bigger picture.
There’s much else to admire here, like Silva’s use of music (which ranges from psychedelic rock to Cab Calloway), the stark locations (which, in wide-screen, can be a little scary in themselves), and the subtle grace notes that Moreno hits in her performance as a leery ice queen. Thanks to RedBox, you can have all this and more for just $1.30 a night!