‘Medusa Deluxe’ Review: One-Shot Hairdressing Murder Mystery Is an Elaborate, Backcombed Tease

·5-min read

In “Medusa Deluxe,” the serpents aren’t in the hair, but all around it: a writhing, hissing collective of human predators slinking around the various parlors and platforms of a high-level hairdressing competition. Most are venomous, and at least one is deadly, or so it seems when a star stylist is found, not just murdered but quite literally scalped, the night before his widely expected victory in the contest. That’s the setup for British writer-director Thomas Hardiman’s splashy, hooky debut feature “Medusa Deluxe,” an arch, gossip-fueled murder mystery that delights more in rounding up its many unusual suspects than in any kind of logical, procedural detective work: Whodunnit isn’t a pressing question in a film where everyone is 100% that bitch.

It sounds good on paper, and looks great on screen, thanks in no small part to genius DP Robbie Ryan — who, following vertiginous collaborations with the likes of Andrea Arnold and Yorgos Lanthimos, finally gets to add a one-take movie to his résumé. At least, that’s how “Medusa Deluxe” is presented, with its various bobbing, weaving Steadicam shots deftly glued together by editor Fouad Gaber to suggest agitated, unbroken motion, more akin to the showy, elastic artifice of “Birdman” than the gritty immersiveness of last year’s “Boiling Point.” Still, this kinetic if not-quite-novel presentation doesn’t entirely patch over the weaknesses of Hardiman’s script, with its exhausting whirl of characters more colorful than they are shaded, and plotting that eventually runs out of compelling diversions from the matter at hand.

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That won’t stop this lively, acid-bright confection from pleasing further festival crowds following its premiere in Locarno’s public-oriented Piazza Grande strand, while it’s easy to see why distributors have already pocketed Hardiman’s calling card, with A24 nabbing North American rights and Mubi taking a surfeit of global territories. They might find this star-free, vibes-driven affair a harder sell beyond the fest circuit, but it makes sense to get in on the ground floor with Hardiman, whose penchant for salty dialogue and ostentatious staging distinguishes him from many recent British freshmen, and could conceivably be put to more commercial use in future projects.

“Medusa Deluxe” owns its garishness from the jump, kicking off with a digitally animated overture that zooms dizzily through a surreal wilderness of skyscraper-sized hairdressing products and implements, before Ryan’s roving camera picks up the baton and maintains the pace. We’re introduced to rival salon owners Cleve (mile-a-minute ensemble standout Clare Perkins, formerly a regular on U.K. soap “EastEnders”) and Divine (Kayla Meikle), whose loveless, expletive-laden back-and-forth as they practise their outlandish tonsorial creations sets the tone of discourse for the next 90-odd minutes. Cleve, in particular, spews forth a scarcely parsable torrent of community history involving past friends, enemies and colleagues, with a memorable upshot: “Trainee hairdressers don’t survive exploding cars.”

Any intrigue over this is set aside, however, when the news reaches them that competition favorite Mosca has been found dead in the compound, the flesh torn from his once presumably well-kept scalp. The messenger is the event’s lavishly pompadoured, lace-shirted, perma-vaping organizer Rene (Darrell D’Silva), who just happens to be a former lover of the deceased. His successor in Mosca’s affections, the high-strung, high-camp Angel (Luke Pasqualino), soon arrives on the scene, glamorously weeping and wailing, with the couple’s young baby — the least shrill presence here by some distance — in tow.

Other players in this unruly game of Clue include brash blonde Kendra (Harriet Webb), whose no-bull, confidante-to-all air cuts through the prevailing hostility, a gaggle of fretful, rumor-dispensing models, and glowering security guard Gac (Heider Ali), who may or may not carry some unsavory secrets relating to the dead man — and whose cleanly shaved dome couldn’t mark him more glaringly as an unwelcome outsider in this world. Performances within the ensemble range from entertaining barnstorming to overcranked hysteria, with no one much motivated to find a real, raw character beneath a flurry of posing and attitude.

“Medusa Deluxe” makes no apologies for its reliance on stereotypes as big and broad and space-taking as many of the ornate coiffures it so lovingly showcases — a particularly lavish bouquet is due chief hairstylist and Wella creative director Eugene Souleiman, whose convincingly editorial creations lend this low-budget enterprise a necessary spritz of high-fashion credibility. But after a time, the combination of abrasive, impenetrably shellacked characters and deliberately, hopelessly tangled shaggy-dog storytelling begins to pall, and viewers may wish for a simpler way in.

Any and all compensations arrive via the film’s formal brio, as Ryan’s camera keeps sashaying undaunted through the chaos, assuming and switching hot, fluorescent color schemes like so many discarded outfits, all in time to a sparse, throbbing score by British electro artist Koreless. Just when you expect the filmmaking to fully wig out, however, Hardiman unexpectedly cuts, opting for a feelgood, disco-soundtracked curtain call that owes more to “Mamma Mia!” than the film’s preceding bird’s-nest of influences, covering early Almodóvar, Altman, Sally Potter and a dash of British teatime television. Whether these characters have earned such an indulgence is moot: In the mirror-strewn world of “Medusa Deluxe,” almost everyone is the star of their own melodrama, and styled accordingly.

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