Initially deriving from the critical language of the visual arts, the term "magical realism" was transposed to the literary world in the 1950s to denote a species of work in which fantastic situations intrude on otherwise "realistic" settings. Although traditionally associated with a certain strand of Latin American fiction, the term has picked up a rather looser application in recent years, coming to refer to a dizzyingly diverse range of books and movies—in effect, anything that partakes in any way of the fantastic. Affixed to everything from Jonathan Safran Foer's poorly imagined old world folk-fantasies in Everything is Illuminated to the whimsical tall tales that comprise Tim Burton's Big Fish, the emphasis has come to be placed firmly on the "magical" while often giving short shrift to the "realistic" side of the equation—though not always to the detriment of a given work.
In Ricky, Francois Ozon's latest film, however, the Under the Sand auteur readjusts the balance, creating a movie about the joys and agonies of motherhood under supernaturally improbable circumstances that gains its force from the interplay between its sense of fantasy and the finely detailed exactitude of its setting. Beginning as a domestic working class drama in full-on observational mode, Ozon's film opens—after a brief prologue—with a near documentary-like glimpse of the factory where its lead character, single mother Katie (Alexandra Lamy) toils. Moving from the packaging machines of the workplace to the domestic ritual of the woman's apartment, the film traces, through a series of impeccably framed compositions, the introduction of a new element, burly co-worker Paco (Sergi Lopez), into the family equation, causing initial friction with Katie's daughter, Lisa (Melusine Mayance), and resulting, mid-film, in the birth of a new son.
Several months after baby Ricky's entrance into the family, he begins to spout a pair of black splotches on his shoulders that quickly develop into two pint sized wings. (In their CGI incarnation, they grow from little buffalo winglets to full-on feathered appendages.) Testing the family's resolve, these mystical protuberances bring out a fiercely maternal instinct in the previously restrained Katie as she seeks to protect her child first from the imagined attacks of Paco, then the very real domestic dangers (sharp objects, hard corners) that take on an extra threat as Ricky learns to fly and the eventual outside menace of the officious medical community and press.
But for all the obvious fantasy of the set-up, Ozon keeps his film firmly tethered to a realistic mode that finds its characters believably worrying out the details of their unique situation and focusing on practical concerns such as changing diapers and outfitting the baby with a protective helmet and pads. So that when we first see Ricky magically perched atop a dresser, angelically framed by the sky pattern of the wallpaper, this initial glimpse of the wondrous takes on extra resonance because it builds so perfectly out of the film's closely examined sense of the quotidian. A trio of (literal) flights of fancy pushes us somewhat away from Ozon's naturalist orientation, but at least one of these scenes, where the baby soars among the track lighting of a discount store, partakes of a delightfully incongruous absurdity. More problematic perhaps is the fact that the filmmaker's insistence on tying his fantasy to a believably detailed setting means that his work risks getting bogged down in less interesting practical matters. And while this does lead to a series of middling scenes charting the family's interactions with a rabid press, this insistence on adhering to a "realist" mode of filmmaking seems a risk worth taking, especially as, in the end, Ozon's film is finally about letting go of the miraculous and embracing what you already have.
Opens December 16