Medusa Deluxe

Medusa Deluxe (2022)

Writer/director Thomas Hardiman’s Medusa Deluxe opens with a mannered animated sequence that it would be easy at first to mistake for a production company ident. Tiny armoured Ancient Greek men – and the odd monster, including the Gorgon of the title – appear and then evaporate in a desert in which there also appear, emerging half-buried from the sand, colossally sized hairsprays, scissors, combs, hairdryers, curlers, and other paraphernalia of the hairdressing trade. The camera pulls back out and up, revealing that all this has, impossibly, been a microscopic arena within and between the plastic bristles of a real hairbrush.  Here hair is a literal, if stylised, battlefield. 

From the moment the camera has extracted itself from this CG mythscape into the far more mundane spaces of a regional hairdressing contest, everything seen here is presented in what purports to be a single continuous shot. There are a few points in the film where there are, or at least could be, sly cuts – moments when the camera passes into darkness, or focuses on a green wall – but rather than teasing apart the technical mechanics of the artistry, it is perhaps better just to surrender to the magic of Robbie Ryan’s cinematography, as he tracks different characters from a multi-storey building’s change rooms to winding corridors and stairwells, bathrooms, balconies, the stage area, store rooms, lifts and external back alleys and car parks, with the camera at one point craning up from the street outside to a man standing several floors above, and continuing to follow him – and later will seem to drift smoothly both into the past, and even into an alternative universe.

Like the fake feature-length single takes of Gustav Hernández’s La casa muda (2010) and Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (2014), or the genuine ones of Mike Figgis’ Timecode (2000), Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002), Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria (2014), Erik Poppe’s Utøya: July 22 (2018), Pablo Olmos Arrayales’ Rendez-vous (2019), Philip Barantini’s Boiling Point (2021) and Beth de Araújo’s Soft & Quiet (2022), or the second half of Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2019), Hardiman’s feature debut deploys a miraculous fluidity of real-time movement to capture an ensemble of characters on the fly and in different constellations. For in this film, named for the serpent-haired Medusa, it is in fact the camera that does the snaking. Like a skilled hairdresser, Hardiman produces a work of art intended to take the breath away while telling a story – and part of his art is to conceal the labour and history of his own artistry beneath the carefully coiffed and layered surface

  If the hairbrush-bound prologue foregrounded ancient history and hair, those will continue to be the film’s preoccupations. “There is some serious history in this hairstyle,” Cleve (Clare Perkins) will say of the Georgian fontange that she has been carefully crafting for her hair model Angie (Lilit Lesser). Later Cleve will reveal to fellow hairdresser Divine (Kayla Meikle) that the gunship facsimile which she has sat atop Angie’s headdress is meant to be “The Orient. 1791. Dunno much about history, do you?” – even as, shortly afterwards, the history of that vessel’s incendiary fate will repeat itself in the present. 

Medusa Deluxe
Inez (Kae Alexander) being styled by Divine (Kayla Meikle)

There is also a lot of history – and in some cases, a history of violence – between these characters. Aggressive Cleve, god-fearing Divine and manipulative Kendra (Harriet Webb) are all as much competitors as friends, while their fourth rival Mosca, who had a restraining order out against Cleve as a result of a previous assault, has been discovered in the building not just dead but scalped. As the police investigate and interview, as Angie and the other models – Etsy (Debris Stevenson), Timba (Anita-Joy Uwajeh) and Inez (Kae Alexander) – speculate and smoke, as creepy security guard Gac (Heider Ali) and his colleague Patricio (Nicholas Karimi) circle suspiciously, and as the competition’s organiser Rene (Darrell D’Silva) prepares to break the bad news to Mosca’s boyfriend Angel (Luke Pasqualino), the cutthroat world of high-end hair care is revealed in all its jealousies, machinations, underhand dealings and vicious vendettas.

Yet while Medusa Deluxe is certainly a murder (or at least mutilation) mystery, it is also concerned with the ephemerality at the root(s) of both life and art. After seeing the exquisitely ‘beautiful’ finish that Cleve has given to Angie’s hairstyle, Divine insists on capturing this moment of perfection on camera, commenting, in words that will almost immediately be proven in their prescience:  “I’m just realising life is short.” Similarly Cleve herself will point out of the hair that she has made her life’s business and her personal obsession: “You know what’s funny? It’s dead. The minute it leaves the follicle.” Mosca’s death and subsequent bizarre scalping may be central to this film, but Hardiman is also exposing the mortality of everyone and everything, in a dog-eat-dog world where love is fleeting, where beauty fades, and where between triumph and tragedy there is only a hair’s breadth.

Medusa Deluxe is a formally adventurous, thematically rich calling card. Presented with sinuous versatility, it finds strange romance even in horror, while reflecting upon its own creative process. For much as these hairdressers spend months preparing, and hours working at the chair, to achieve their temporary vision, this film’s painstakingly elaborated, gob-smackingly complex mobile shot lasts just 140 mesmerising minutes, and then is done and gone – in killer style. 

strap: Thomas Hardiman’s seemingly single-take murder mystery shows regional competition hairdressers caught in killer style

© Anton Bitel