Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Chick Flick Deconstruction: Practical Magic (Part Two)

Previously, a too-vague death curse was countered with a too-specific love spell, the Owens women do not even know the meaning of this thing "consent" and two little girls decide to base their love lives around these events. I had a little rage.

But this is where all is forgiven, because...


(Content note: more magical removal of agency, drugging without consent, partner abuse, kidnapping, rape threats and attempted rape. Some of it will be illustrated with screenshots and/or video.)

The concept of "family" in this type of fiction is pretty simple: family is everything, everyone who shares genetic material loves each other even if it's buried deep down, and if you have problems with relatives, they can be solved with hugs, words and a stirring orchestral piece. And while that may be true for some (including me), real life is rarely that rosy. So yes, this is another movie about how family should stick together. If that's not your thing, and it certainly doesn't have to be, it's not going to be for you. But I will point out that it doesn't take "family is sacred" as a given, it explores some very complex themes related to (genetic) sisterhood, and it has women saying "I love you" to each other on screen. I just can't find it in my heart to hate on the movie for it, I just can't.

The story picks up several years after the prologue. The timeline becomes a little blurred at this point, but I'm fairly sure Gillian and Sally are teenagers now. Gillian is eloping, and Sally sees her off, saying that she'll miss her and she loves her. The sisters cut their palms and make a blood pact. They hug, and Gillian disappears into the night with her boyfriend.

And I love every second of this scene, every single emotional beat. And there's a lot of them. The entire scene takes just a little over a minute, but it's a very strong touchstone moment.

Sally loves Gillian. She loves Gillian enough to support her when she does things that Sally doesn't approve of or has doubts about. She doesn't want her sister to go, she worries for her, but she smiles and hugs her and genuinely wishes her the best. This will be a consistent theme in the movie: loving someone enough to let them make their own choices, no matter what we may think of them, and not judging them or loving them less for it. Even when (especially when) it becomes difficult to watch.

Gillian, for her part, knows exactly what she is doing.

I'm sure she likes her boyfriend well enough, but her reasons for eloping are very obvious. Do not expect to see that guy again. He won't even be mentioned again. It's a nice establishing moment that will inform her character for the rest of the movie.

Again we skip several years ahead, to the aunts and Sally walking through town reading a postcard from Gillian, who is now in Orlando and has moved on from (apparently) yet another boyfriend. Which leads to the weirdest exchange in any movie I've ever seen.


What does that mean, aunt Frances? Go through her? Like, you hope she meets a man who breaks her heart by casually moving on to the next girl? Is that what you mean? I don't know what else it could mean. What a shitty thing to wish on your niece, aunt Frances.

I could read a whole lot into this, but it's sort of pointless, because I just do not understand the intent here.

And then, more huh?

Aunt Jet has been stubbornly saying hello to every person they pass on the street, hoping for a reply, but the people just scamper. Until Sally sees a guy on the street and they have a moment and then she trips and stumbles, because she is played by Sandra Bullock. This guy is the only person in the entire scene who says hello back, and aunt Jet takes notice.

Which is probably why she puts a love spell on the both of them.


In the next few minutes of screen time, it's made apparent that the aunts have put a spell on both Sally and this man (Michael) to make them fall in love. They've never even talked, but the aunts have decided that it's time for Sally to experience love and just go full-on evil. Look at this goddamn framing:

This is seriously the scene. The aunts and Sally are home, the bells toll, and suddenly Sally gets up in a daze and runs into town to kiss this man she's never properly met. The aunts grin and nod in approval.

So when I say the aunts have no goddamn regard for anyone's free will and agency, I hope you understand I'm not messing around. Again, the movie knows this is bad and will address it, but this is a lot to swallow.

"But what about the curse?" you say. Congrats on being smarter than this movie.

What follows is a montage of Sally enjoying a happy marriage that produces two little girls (because of course it does), being happily in love and having the normal life she always dreamed of. In the meantime, Gillian is happy as a clam traveling and partying with friends, and making sexytime with her sexy new lover Jimmy Angelov. (I am not kidding.) Everything is going well for Sally and her family, until she hears the chirping of the death watch beetle. Michael is out of the house, and Sally panics. She tears up the floorboards looking for the beetle, because if you kill the beetle the curse gets offended and goes home, I guess.

Michael, of course, dies. In a scene that mirrors Sally and Gillian's arrival at the same house, Sally takes her daughters to live with the aunts. In a scene that is genuinely heartbreaking, they confess that they put a love spell on them. The explanation they give is that, hold on...

No, really. They cast a love spell on her, or both of them, but didn't expect her to fall in love? So when she totally unexpectedly did fall in twue wuv, they didn't tell her either because... Huh? And then... curse? Which they know exists but... WHAT.

I cannot even with this curse.

And this isn't the heartfelt confession that fixes everything. Sally will be cold and angry toward her aunts for a very long time. It's weird how a movie with a plot this badly constructed and dippy can have such realistic and eerily spot-on depictions of human relationships. And there will be no grand "forgiving you" scene. Over time, the wound scabs over, but Sally never really gets over it. The relationship with the aunts has changed and we won't see the happy trio from before again. This is the last time the movie outright addresses this betrayal, but the mistrust and anger linger in the performances for a good long while.

Sally begs them to bring Michael back with magic. The aunts refuse, saying that the thing that would come back wouldn't be Michael. So they let people make mistakes to teach them a lesson but draw the line at necromancy? Except no, because they do that exact thing later in the movie. I have no chance of deconstructing this scene, because you cannot take apart a red hot mess. And I still forgive the movie, because while the logic is just entirely non-existent at this point, the emotions are very much there and very real. No matter how silly it is, they pull it off, to the point where I challenge you not to go a little teary-eyed.

To her credit, Sally never brings up the necromancy spell again. At this point I was scared she was either going to be a justifiable idiot and bring him back anyway, or simply get over the death of her spouse so the movie can get on with the plot.

Neither of those things happens. Instead, she vows that her children will never, ever do magic and goes into a deep depression. And it's very well portrayed, to the point of being triggery. She can't get out of bed, she can't engage with her children, she has no internal motivation and disconnects from her family and what they stand for. And all the way from who knows where, Gillian senses her sister's despair and escapes her lover to go help her.

Yes, I said she escapes him. It's the only word that fits here. Without the movie commenting on it, we see her slip some sort of drug in his bottle before she leaves the hotel where they're staying and shows up at the house. We also see him physically restrain her. It's not a huge moment, he just holds her arms and gently pulls her back, but it's a terrifyingly familiar sight for anyone who's ever seen an abusive relationship. The body language speaks volumes here.

I know this is a strange thing to say about what is generally regarded as a dippy magical romcom, but this movie may have the most realistic portrayal of an abusive relationship I have ever seen. It's quiet and insidious, it starts small and in the background, but it grows and intensifies at an alarming rate. I get the feeling that the writers know about these types of relationships, how they develop and what sort of effect they can have. Because they incorporate subtle red flags everywhere before shit hits the fan proper.

Gillian and Sally see each other again for the first time in what feels like years, and Sally slowly crawls out of her depression. Gillian talks about her passionate relationship (which doesn't include love, because remember, she selects her lovers in function of the curse) and sends up many a signal flare. For instance, she reveals that if she doesn't drug Jimmy with belladonna, she would never get any sleep. She tells this like it's a cute story about how passionate Jimmy is, which is again terrifyingly realistic.

If you've ever seen a female friend or relative dive head-first into an abusive relationship, this scene will be so very familiar to you. Sally is kind and careful not to judge, but she is obviously very worried. Abuse victims often buy into their abuser's version of reality to the point where frightening situations become part of their normal routine. And it's difficult for anyone who loves them to question that perceived normalcy without driving them away or making it sound like they're judging them and the relationship. This movie goes there. It just does. And it lets this uncomfortable moment just sit there for a while, being uncomfortable. There are movies that have partner abuse as its main theme that never even come close to the level of realism depicted here.

So while that awfulness just sits there, we go forward yet again, and Sally picks up her life. At Gillian's suggestion, she opens a shop selling herbal remedies and beauty products. The movie also takes a minute to establish that her daughters are definitely Owens women, because after a particularly nasty bit of bullying, one of her daughters gets so angry she curses a boy with chicken pox. Sally is extremely angry at this. Not so much about giving a young child a dangerous disease, that's alright, but we don't do magic in this house young lady.

Sure ladies, people hate you because you're "different". Let's totally roll with that.

Anyway, some undetermined amount of time later (this movie has a problem with establishing time frame like whoa) Sally suddenly becomes very worried about Gillian. Before she can do anything the phone rings and a crying Gillian begs her to come pick her up at a motel. Sally immediately drives out and finds Gillian cowering in a corner of a motel room, crying and bruised and possibly drugged.

I noticed that Sally doesn't immediately ambush Gillian with questions or demands to know what happened or insistence that she call the police. She just gently takes her out of the room and tries to get her to safety. I like that. I like that a lot.

Sally tries to take Gillian to her car, but Gillian panics when she sees the blood moon and runs back for her charm. Jimmy ambushes them and forces Sally to drive him away from the motel at gunpoint, keeping Gillian hostage in the backseat. In a pretty intense moment he drunkenly explains that Gillian is his and tries to brand her with his ring. He's not angry or scared here. He's having a wonderful time, singing along with the car radio and talking about cowboy stories. Because he simply does not see these women as any sort of threat. He's mistaken. At Gillian's prompting, Sally doses his bottle with belladonna, but he refuses to pass out for quite a while and happily proclaims that he's feeling "very into sisters right now."

I have to pause here for a minute to point out that I was born and raised in Western Europe, and unfortunately, in my neck of the woods, the stereotype of Eastern European men being dangerous and violent (especially towards women) is very much alive. I sincerely hope that in the US, this presentation of him as a Bulgarian is meant to telegraph "sexy" and "exotic", which also isn't without problems, but, well. WELL.

Jimmy does eventually pass out, seconds before he rapes Gillian. After a brief moment of relief, the sisters notice that he isn't breathing. They panic, and Sally is righteously pissed off. But again, I can't help but notice that no matter how angry she gets at the thought of losing her children and going to prison for murder, she doesn't blame Gillian for this situation and doesn't accept her frantic apologies.

And suddenly the movie turns into a comedy again. Yeah. And the weirdest thing of all is that it totally works for me. From this point on, almost everything they do is played for laughs and genuinely funny.

While driving around with Jimmy's corpse in the backseat, they try and figure out what to do. Sally wants to confess and claim self-defense. Which sounds about right to me. But I buy why Gillian doesn't want to do that. Instead she insists that they raise Jimmy with magic. Sally repeats what the aunts told her years ago, that Jimmy would come back "dark and unnatural."


The next ten minutes of screen time is basically the sisters abusing Jimmy's corpse, and it's FANTASTIC.

They decide that raising him is the least bad option, take him home, drag his corpse into the kitchen, stick needles in his eyes, cast the spell, raise him, kill him again, decide to call it quits and just bury him the back yard.

I said before that I find it very strange that filmmakers often expect me, a woman, to find cat fights in chick flicks cathartic, or at least enjoyable to watch. We're supposed to indulge in it like it's a guilty pleasure, like we are tired of acting like we like other women and secretly just want to indulge in our guilty pleasure of watching bitches fight for our amusement. I don't. What I find cathartic is two women killing an abusive asshole (twice) and manhandling his corpse to dopey comedy music.

Now that's something I'll break out the Ben & Jerry's for.

On a more serious note, I need to draw attention to a common trope in Hollywood-style modern comedies. If the premise hinges on there being a corpse, but you still want your movie to be light and funny, you can only go two ways: either the person who dies is barely introduced, so we don't care if they die, or the corpse has to belong to someone so vile and inhuman that we can't see them as a real person and, again, we don't care when they die. The corpse is a plot device, after all, not something we should actually care about. And in Practical Magic, they certainly go with option two. I think most viewers will just be glad that Jimmy is dead and move on. But for abuse survivors (like me), I think this can be a very enjoyable thing to watch, depending on how events played out and where you are in the recovery process. Because to us, Jimmy is a person. He's a person we know all too well. He's a person who most likely got away with some really vile shit and there's jack-all we can do about that. Two women doing violence at the man who abused them is a power fantasy, although a bit of a shameful one, but it's one that I personally very much enjoy.

I have, like, a lot of problems.

In any case, this is where we're at 40 minutes into the movie. The sisters are home with a twice-dead Jimmy under the gazebo and a firm desire to simply forget that any of this ever happened. Predictably, this will not work out.

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