Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Medusa Deluxe (2022) dir. Thomas Hardiman

A little off the top.


One of the great debates in film criticism– in criticism of any kind, really– is that of style vs. substance. On one end of the spectrum, you have films which are so audacious visually, stylistically, or conceptually that one scarcely notices that there’s not much going on under the hood (I’m reminded of the time I attempted to watch the linear cut of Christopher Nolan’s Memento, only to discover that the film’s impact is decimated when the story is divorced from its reverse-narrative conceit). On the other hand, you’ve got the films which place so much emphasis on dialogue and ideas that they could just as easily been produced in the golden age of the radio drama. Like most debates regarding the merits of art, this struggle will never be resolved because both approaches have equal merit. The question is not which approach is better, but how well it is applied.

This brings us to Medusa Deluxe, a UK oddity being given a quiet digital release this week by A24. Medusa Deluxe possesses no shortage of either style or substance; it boasts both a dazzling visual gimmick and one of the densest and wordiest screenplays of the year. Yet these two aspects never quite gel, resulting in a film that feels curiously less than the sum of its parts. There are so many ideas in Medusa Deluxe that one walks away wondering if it had any at all.

Medusa Deluxe opens in media res behind the scenes of a prestigious London hairdressing competition. One of the star hairdressers, Mosca, has been brutally murdered– scalped, to be precise, which would seem to be the ultimate desecration for those in this particular line of work. One by one, we meet the suspects and the bereaved: models, rivals, a singularly creepy security guard, as well as the show’s magnanimous producer Rene (Darrell D’Silva) and Mosca’s Columbian lover Angel (Luke Pasqualino). The film’s structure largely follows that of Richard Linklater’s Slacker, with a roving camera observing one conversation, then picking a character to follow down a corridor into the next scene, and so forth. As the night unfolds, we come to learn the intricate web of relationships within this self-contained little world, and, gradually, begin to understand what exactly happened to separate Mosca from the top of his head.

From moment to moment, I quite enjoyed Medusa Deluxe. There are a number of great performances, particularly Clare Perkins as a fiery rival hairdresser, as well as Pasqualino, who comes to serve as the film’s emotional core (he also has perhaps the funniest line, upon learning from Rene of his partner’s death: “There’s been an accident. Mosca’s been scalped.” “By accident?”). The camerawork, courtesy of the great Robbie Ryan, is appropriately stunning, and the film’s single-take conceit (I assume there are cheats, but who can tell anymore in the days of CGI fudging) effectively drives the suspense and confusion of the events. And the hair and makeup are as outrageous as you would hope from a film of its setting; I was particularly charmed by the model who spends the entire film in the process of having an elaborate model ship constructed into her beehive. From the visuals to the array of UK dialects, Medusa is a sensory delight.

Yet I found myself unsatisfied by the time it was over, as if the film’s surplus of twists and ideas had the effect of canceling each other out. As a mystery, it never quite works; by setting the murder prior to the starting point the film never really gives us a chance to size up the suspects, and the resolution lacks the catharsis necessary to the format. The black comedy is undercut by the seriousness of the characters’ motivations, and the cast is too sprawling for us to fully connect to many of them on an emotional level. By the time the film reaches its deliriously silly closing credits– a disco dance party which clearly owes more than a little to Beau Travail– we’ve seen so many flourishes and dubiously meaningful twists that our reaction is less one of delight than of “sure, why not?”

Make no mistake, there is something here. This is Hardiman’s first feature film following a string of shorts (he also, not incidentally, a stint as a hairstylist), and it clearly announces him as a talent to watch; he clearly knows how to direct a performance out of an actor, and how to use the camera to place us in a character’s shoes. But Medusa Deluxe suffers a bit from “first film syndrome,” the tendency of a young filmmaker to throw every idea at the screen, whether out of enthusiasm or a (perhaps understandable) fear of not getting a second chance. I’ll be very interested to see what Hardiman does next, now that he’s gotten these ya-yas out of his system. I strongly suspect that he’s got a great film in him.

I just wish that film was Medusa Deluxe. There is just enough in this film that I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from seeing it, and someone more in tune with this world and its characters might get more out of it then I did. But for a film with so many elements that I truly did enjoy, it left me strangely cold. In the end, the film is like its own elaborate hairstyles: impressive, but lacking volume.

Medusa Deluxe
dir. Thomas Hardiman
101 min.

Available digitally and on demand Friday, 8/11

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