“Who scalps a hairdresser?” The key line in Medusa Deluxe, an ingenious low-budget whodunit set entirely inside a regional hairdressing competition, where big characters vie to produce the hairdo that will grab the judges’ eye.
Or they would have vied, if one of their number, Mosca, hadn’t wound up dead, the victim of the bizarre scalping incident. Who might have done it? An old flame, a rival, a cranky judge, an angry security guard or any one of a number of young female models, all of whom have enough spare energy to murder any number of people who get in their way.
Now, the paramedics are here tidying away Mosca’s scalped body and the police are shortly to arrive – the wrong order for these things but let’s grant writer/director Thomas Hardiman some licence in his feature debut – allowing the camera to become the detective and prowl the halls of the godforsaken concrete bunker where the whole grisly thing (the murder, not the regional hairdressing competition – though that’s moot) plays out.
No detective. No cops. No individual hair stylist or model acting as a gumshoe. It’s an interesting and unusual decision by Hardiman to do things this way, and forces the entire film into being more subjective and impressionistic than the cool and orderly whodunit usually is.
As the camera snoops, we meet characters one after the other, like Clare Perkins’s Cleve, an angry stylist whose opening monologue – shifting from a discussion of the fontange, to hair-dressing more generally, to a past assistant who burst into flames in a terrible peroxide accident, to a relationship that came to a sticky end. It ranges wide, for sure, and Perkins goes at it as if she were playing an attack dog.
From here various models – Timba (Anita Joy-Uwajeh), Etsy (Debris Stevenson), Inez (Kae Alexander). Fearsome all. Meek Angie (Lilit Lesser), recipient of the fontange (watch and learn). Cleve’s god-bothering rival Divine (Kayla Meikle). Elaborately hirsute silver-fox Rene (Darrel D’Silva), who runs the competition. A boggle-eyed security guard called Gac (Heider Ali). Stylist Kendra (Harriet Webb), a ball of spite and fury who seems like a likely murder suspect, but then anyone of them could be. Eventually, Angél (Luke Pasqualino, possibly the only one of the cast you’ll recognise), Mosca’s lover. And trailing along in the wind, Patricio (Nicholas Karimi), possibly another lover, possibly just a guy selling dodgy gear, possibly a murderer.
There’s something about dramas set in hairdressing competitions that brings out the tendency to hair-dryer performances and there are plenty on display here. It’s the whole point – large characters pushed to crisis point by a terrible event – but there’s also a good deal of humour in Medusa Deluxe, slightly buried beneath the juggernaut acting style.
I have no idea how Hardiman got Robbie Ryan to be his DP. The ace cinematographer behind superb-looking and much bigger budgeted films like Slow West and The Favourite goes for a muted Christopher Doyle look, pinks, greens and yellows of a pastelly sort giving the corridors and austere spaces of the post-industrial setting a garish atmosphere as Hardiman daisychains from one character to another posing the same tacit question – what’s your story then?
I liked the soundtrack too, by Koreless – bat squeaks and ancient synth rumbles for the most part but giving way to popcorn rhythms as the drama mounts towards the whodunit reveal which Hardiman pulls off in spite of having no Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot to walk us through the howdunit and whydunit.
All this followed by end credits over which the entire cast, in spangly outfits, show off their disco-dancing moves (George McCrae fans get two hits). A moment that made me wonder whether the whole thing could have stood a bit more light-heartedness here and there. Or maybe it was there but I missed it.
In short – I liked it. It’s an interesting experiment, which Hardiman and the team in front of and behind the camera pull off, even if the edifice starts to totter a bit towards the end. More hairspray needed, maybe.
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© Steve Morrissey 2023