Kandisha (2020)

‘Blackie’ Bintou (Suzy Bembou), ‘Arab’ Morjana (Samarcande Saadi) and ‘whitie’ Amélie (Mathilde Lamusse) are high school best friends enjoying summer vacation together in their Parisian banlieue. When they are not partying with their tight group of friends, they collaborate on elaborate graffiti art, making their collective, colourful mark on an otherwise drab, neglected community. Despite the affectionate racial slurs that they constantly exchange, this teenage trio would do anything for each other, and embody, in and between themselves, a salutary picture of French multiculturalism. Soon, though, after being assaulted and nearly raped by her drunken ex-boyfriend Farid (Brahim Hadrami), bloody, angry Amélie will invoke the vengeful spirit of Kandisha, unleashing a darker form of female, polyethnic solidarity.

According to North Moroccan folklore, Aicha Kandisha was a beautiful woman who seduced and killed male Portuguese invaders, before being captured and tortured to death, and then merging with a Jinn as a monstrous succubus figure that lives near water and preys on men from beyond the grave. In the film Kandisha, she is summoned in a bathroom by having her name repeated, and is expressly syncretised with the European legend of Bloody Mary, while the use of catoptromancy, the setting in graffiti’d projects, and even the first two syllables of Kandisha’s ritually repeated name, all evoke Bernard Rose’s vengeful African-American slave’s son Candyman (2014) in female form. This is a neat conflation, as the triple origins of Kandisha’s myth match the Muslim, African and Caucasian provenance of the film’s three heroines. 

Writer/directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury (Inside, 2007) are past masters of genre hybridisation. Their Livid (2011) merged a nocturnal house burglary withLewis Carroll, Eyes Without A Face (1960) and Suspiria (1977); their Among The Living (2014) conjoined Stand By Me (1986) with The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and The Funhouse (1981); and their prequel Leatherface (2017) located the prehistory of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) between One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Badlands (1973). Now with Kandisha they splice together a regendered Candyman with elements from Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood (2014), and allow the monstrous, shifting figure of Kandisha, half-woman, half-beast, to incarnate their film’s freakish blend of different forms. For Kandisha is all at once the story of young women’s suburban coming of age (as they must confront the loss of their loved ones), and a supernatural slasher whose central bugbear tracks a long tradition, across the waters, of female suffering and incomplete satisfaction.

Kandisha sets itself up as a rape-revenge movie (of sorts), before graphically illustrating the messily grotesque downside to adolescent empowerment. Once this Jinn is out of her bottle, she cannot stop – or easily be stopped – in her misandrist serial killing, lashing out at any men in Amélie’s orbit, and leaving in the wake of her misdirected vendetta a trail of collateral damage consisting of good, decent male characters whom we have grown to like deeply. Only Farid could be said in any way to ‘deserve’ what he gets, but ironically he gets it somewhat easier than the rest, and it is carefully pointed out that he too has his sweet side and was once truly loved by Amélie, so that, while he is certainly a would-be rapist in the moment, he is not simply reduced to that. Here, in what is an atypical and therefore subversive representation, the other (mostly Muslim) men are all considerate, caring and respectful, while even the white policeman who catches Bintou in the act of spray-painting treats her with (unreciprocated) kindness and lets her off with a mild caution. Meanwhile, in another inversion, we have three teenaged girls racing to protect and save the fathers and big brothers around them, rather than the other way around – even if their efforts are mostly in vain, as Amélie is forced to witness the harrowing, ramifying consequences of her own destructive urges, no longer latent.  

Amélie’s rightful, righteous anger draws up deep-seated historical tensions between the races and the sexes which ultimately prove hard to dispel again, and an old myth is restaged in a different place and time where it no longer quite fits into the environment. It is that mismatch, as a young Caucasian woman becomes fused with a North African legend, which keeps Kandisha unpredictable and interesting, as a story that never really ends instead reinvents itself. 

© Anton Bitel