While Medusa Deluxe is flashy and stylistically daring, it would have benefited from fully embracing the stylistic excess and flamboyance of the subculture it depicts.
Stylistic excess, or an overabundance of such, sometimes kills films and their respective directors’ visions entirely. But there are rare occasions where that overreliance on extravagance can help a filmmaker make his point or cement his place and style on the grand scope of cinema history. The first two directors of the modern era that come to mind are Ruben Östlund and Baz Luhrmann. Both of them use that maximalist approach in different ways: the former as a way to lift his satirical vision, and the latter to pull the audience into his lavish worlds of idolization, romance, and ethics – his films often feel like a waltz of pizazz and showboating. An intertwining between these two mechanisms would have helped Thomas Hardiman make his film Medusa Deluxe into a more enigmatic and expressive cinematic experience.
Medusa Deluxe is set during an annual hairdressing competition hosted by Rene (Darrell D’Silva). The competition is located in a labyrinthine studio building, in which the camera gets lost constantly because of its many hallways, doors, and exits. Its cutthroat contestants are very tense and on edge. Something (or someone) has startled them to the point that lavish hairstyles aren’t the priority anymore. One of the competitors, Mosca (John Alan Roberts), is found murdered; the stylist was scalped. We don’t see this murder or the bloodied body, as Thomas Hardiman doesn’t want to go that route. But we hear about it from many perspectives. Everyone is traumatized, looking at their peers with a side eye as if they were the killer.
The film then takes a murder-mystery swing that makes it stand out. The competitors – Cleve (Clare Perkins), Divine (Kayla Meikle), and Kendra (Harriet Webb) – single each other out not only because they could be the culprit of the gruesome murder, but also on their self-indulgence, talents, and other topics that lead up to humorous banter. At first, their conversations center around the crime committed and their entrapment in the building until everything gets resolved. Later on, as you get to meet all the players who have a hand in the sticky situation, they begin to talk about other stuff that gets on their nerves. The mystery is still being played out, as there are chase sequences and tense scenes of confrontation that are fueled by KORELESS’ brilliant and eerie score.
Their banter is sharp: Hardiman opts for a more confrontational play of words that helps develop these characters’ personas. But slowly, the mystery – what kickstarted the film in the first place – begins to play second fiddle in the grand scheme of things. Medusa Deluxe starts to go down a route that doesn’t flow as well as the writer-director intended. There’s talk of investigating what happened to poor Mosca, but this concept isn’t developed into something meaningful. Sparks of brilliance are scattered throughout the various conversation set-pieces. But, as the film unfolds, the less interesting it becomes.
Meanwhile, the murder mystery element drags the narrative down due to its sloppy development. You begin to get lost amidst everything that is happening. The viewer can’t sense where the murder mystery and the competition connect with one another, and many will be left wanting more from both ends of the story. Medusa Deluxe’s weaknesses lay in its entangled narrative that adopts two different concepts, never finding its footing in terms of storytelling.
At least, there is some compensation when it comes to the film’s style and look. Stylistically speaking, Hardiman and cinematographer Robbie Ryan (Marriage Story, American Honey), alongside the crew of hair stylists and wig makers who worked in the movie, deliver the goods. Medusa Deluxe is shot in a way that’s meant to make it look like it was filmed in one long take. In some films, this feels like a gimmick more so than a storytelling device. But, here, you are left amazed by Ryan’s cinematography.
As his camera goes through the various hallways in this maze-like locale, a magical sensation rises from the lens into the places where the characters are situated. You are bewitched, almost garnering a similar feeling that Gaspar Noé’s Climax delivered, although without the provocation and horror aesthetics. This stylistic choice, alongside the array of fabulous wigs and hairstyles (which deserve some awards recognition), is what keeps this film fresh and engaging. You want to see where Robbie Ryan and his camera go next, following everyone like a trespassing shadow.
There are also moments in the movie’s latter half where Hardiman flexes his daring director muscles. But they arrive too little too late, as these scenes were the ones the audience was expecting this whole time. The dance routine and gospel choir, backed by an electronic disco instrumental, are easily the best sequences in the film, which proves that Medusa Deluxe would have benefited from leaning into the excess and flamboyance of the subculture it depicts.
Medusa Deluxe opened in cinemas the UK and Ireland on 9 June 2023 and is now available to watch on MUBI in the UK and various countries, and in select US theaters and on VOD.