Cannes 2013 Review – Magic Magic

For his fourth film Magic Magic, Chilean director Sebastián Silva uses the desolation of Patagonia to give this psychological chiller an environment that emphasizes the isolation of the protagonist (played by Juno Temple). Unfortunately, since the cause of her descent into madness is never made clear, the audience is left wondering where things went wrong, not only in the story, but also in the making of the film. American tourist Alicia (Temple) goes to visit her cousin Sarah (Emily Browning) in Santiago, Chile. Sarah has planned a trip to the southern region of Patagonia with her boyfriend Agustín (Agustín Silva, a brother of the director), his sister Barbara (Catalina Sandino Moreno), and their American friend Brink (Michael Cera). The trip has hardly started when Sarah is ostentatiously called back to Santiago to take an exam, so Alicia is left hanging as the fifth wheel on the wagon of Sarah's band of friends. None of them really makes the effort to integrate Alicia into their group, though Alicia's increasingly erratic behavior doesn't exactly invite them to do so (in all fairness, Cera's character is such an asshole that he would probably deserve to be drowned in the cold waters of Southern Chile himself). The line between reality and fantasy starts to blur for Alicia, and the belated arrival of her cousin at their cabin doesn't exactly calm her down. After a ludicrous hypnosis session by Agustín ends badly, Alicia's mental state starts to deteriorate even faster, culminating in a finale that is chaotic and abrupt, and doesn't provide any resolution.

What frustrates most about Magic Magic is that the reasons for Alicia's behavior are never truly explained. Is it being deprived of sleep from the start of her trip (after ten days of Cannes I can assure you: lack of sleep does not lead to insanity)? Is it leaving a stray puppy by the side of the road (this strand is given importance early on, but then left hanging)? Is it because 'the white man' (or woman, in this case) is bewitched in this region where indigenous customs still rule and outsiders are met with suspicion? Or is it the isolation of a young girl, who seemingly has never been abroad, and who can't cope with the whole situation she is dumped in? The film is never clear about this, but it really needs an explanation to amp up the tension. Instead, we are left with a constant feeling that something horrible is waiting just around the corner, only to find nothing there but the Patagonian wild and a sheep or two. Each sequence is set up in typical horror genre fashion, only to deflate when the audience realizes that nothing horrifying is going to happen.

It doesn't help that the main actors all seem to be in different films altogether. Temple is rather effective as the girl going mad (though she is quite unstable from the get-go), but since the screenplay gives her little to hold onto in terms of her mental state, the performance never goes past incomprehensible panic and whining. Browning is given a subplot involving an abortion ('exam' was not that far from the truth, I guess), but this strand is never picked up, leaving Browning nothing more to do than put on worried faces for her cousin. Cera plays the same awkward character he always plays (the actor's appearance probably ensures he will never beat this kind of typecasting), but his Brink is a one-note asshole that you wish would get lost in the Patagonian woods. In any other horror thriller he would be one of the first characters to go, but since nothing effectively happens in this film, we are deprived of this satisfaction. Sandino Moreno is an apathetic character with no function in the story, and just shows up every now and then to be bitchy towards Alicia. Silva is the 'nice guy,' but an inexplicable scene between him and Browning's Sarah late in the film paints him as a chauvinist pig out of the blue. All characters are in some way horror-story tropes, but not all of them seem to realize they are in such a film.

The story takes left and right turns yet remains aimless, and after the final cut-to-black you're left with a feeling there was much more to be made out of this. The locale certainly provides potential for a chilling atmosphere, but if a sheep dog that isn't particularly vicious is supposed to provide the main chills, your film is in trouble. Plot elements are introduced, then never given much thought (Alicia imagining things, Sarah's abortion, the roadside puppy, a dead parrot). The film, much like its lead character, stumbles to the end. The Patagonian outback is beautiful to look at and impressively lensed by cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Glenn Kaplan (no surprise there), but it can't hide that this film lacks cause and urgency, is shoddily edited, and has a cast that wanders around trying to find a storyline to hold onto.