Writer-director Tom Hardiman’s arthouse-camp-murder-mystery Medusa Deluxe is serving mood along with insults like “you Pantene Pro-V c*nt”. It’s a stunning technical achievement mixed with a seductive ambience that soars when it works.
Backstage ahead of a regional hair show, a stylist Mosca (John Roberts), has been murdered and savagely scalped. Locked down waiting for the police, the models and other stylists gossip and fret. Not only has their chance to shine been stolen from them, but the killer may still be in the building.
The insular world of hair styling has more twists and turns in store. Rene (Darrell D’Silva), who runs the competition, was Mosca’s ex-lover and may also have been paid off by rival stylist Kendra (Harriet Webb) to throw the competition her way. Meanwhile the models, lead by Inez (Kae Alexander), turn amateur detectives, stylist Divine (Kayla Meikle) is preaching to anyone who’ll listen, while spaced-out security guard Gac (Heider Ali) keeps disappearing. When Mosca’s husband, Angel (Luke Pasqualino) arrives with their baby things get even more complicated.
Medusa Deluxe starts with a fire in its belly thanks to the powerhouse performance of Clare Perkins as Cleve (a stylist with a volatile temper) whose frustration bubbles out in a monologue of rage laced with humour. “I’m in the middle of a Georgian fontange, you can’t just walk away from that shit!” She says before revealing her previous violent run-in with Mosca that ended in a restraining order. In a magnetic ensemble cast, Perkins is Mother.
The big conceit of Medusa Deluxe is its status as a seamless “single-shot” feature, thanks to Oscar-nominated cinematographer Robbie Ryan (The Favourite). The camera floats and follows characters from room to room, gliding from conversation to conversation. The obvious comparison is Alejandro G. Inarritu’s Birdman, both for the clever camera work and the backstage setting. I’d also pitch that there are elements of Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter. This is the film’s strength and greatest weakness. Some scenes crack with electricity as your jaw drops, trying to figure out how shots and actions were achieved but too often you are left wandering corridors that rob the film of its momentum. At first thrilling to watch, the single-shot threatens to become a straight-jacket on the action. This is compounded by the minimalist, percussive score by Koreless, which made the the film drag at times.
Things pick up pace in the closing moments with the injection of live music and we get a reflective moment for Cleve who sums up why they are so passionate about hair. As a working class woman, without a formal education, hair was her escape. It’s “the crown you never take off”.
There are moments of perfectly pitched camp, captured with a nonchalant, fashion-infused lens – a brilliant blend of tones that feels exciting (think of Showgirls if it were directed by Steven Soderbergh) and some truly stunning hair creations. I wish more attention had been paid to the plot and pacing, but when the mixture of style and substance is just right this is pure cinematic joy.
By Chad Armstrong
Medusa Deluxe plays on at 9pm on Friday, August 25th, 2023 as part of the 10th Queer Screen Film Festival in Sydney, Australia. Click here for tickets & more information. Released in the US by A24 on August 11th, 2023.