Monday 17 July 2023

Cut!: "Medusa Deluxe"

Medusa Deluxe, the British cinema lays a malingering ghost to rest. Set in the notionally sidesplitting world of competitive hairdressing, 2001's Blow Dry was one of multiple unhappy interventions made locally by Harvey Weinstein in that millennial Cool Britannia moment, a Miramax-backed Full Monty variant now memorable chiefly for imported star Josh Hartnett's lamentable attempt at a Yorkshire accent. This new film approaches a similar set-up with visibly greater confidence. Debutant writer-director Thomas Hardiman drops us slap-bang in the middle of the action (backstage fallout from the discovery a stylist has been killed, and scalped to boot), fills his characters' mouths with vernacular as colourful as some of the barnets on display, and proceeds in a digitally-enabled approximation of a single, unbroken camera movement. It's not the obvious diversion Blow Dry was hoping to be - indeed, the crowd of real-world hairdressers I found myself sitting among emerged equally flustered and bewildered, with much to discuss as they set Mrs. Godfrey's perm in the salon tomorrow - but it has a strong, consistently funny conceptual gag in its back pocket: that all of the formal huffing-and-puffing one witnessed in Sam Mendes's 1917 or Sokurov's Russian Ark or Alan Clarke's Elephant or Hitchcock's Rope before that should now be applied to the aftermath of a suspected scalping at a competitive hairdressing contest. You can't fail to laugh, or at least titter, at some point.

Other leftfield influences begin to make themselves felt. For some while, I wondered whether Hardiman might be the first filmmaker in history to be inspired by Robert Altman's Prêt-à-Porter: another millennial Miramax flop, its access-all-areas camera set to roaming Paris Fashion Week in the wake of a suspicious death. Being a Brit indie, Medusa Deluxe proves altogether less starry - there's barely a familiar face on screen to reassure us - and its wit tends towards the droller, drier end of the spectrum: the hairstyles are like the fetishes in Peter Strickland films, a niche timesuck occupying disproportionate space in and on these characters' heads. (The centrepiece is a vast, Troll-like quiff, teased into a crashing ocean wave with integral neon schooner: it would have earned full marks from this observer, were it not such a conspicuous health-and-safety risk.) I suspect you'll spend some part of the film marvelling at Hardiman's logistical achievement: he gets everything up and running within seconds, keeps the camera moving through a grimy rabbit warren of mirrored rooms without once stumbling into shot, and finally arrives at some form of conclusion. But he also does subtler work with his actors, registering personalities on the hoof, and shifting audience suspicions between vaping organiser Rene (Rotherham-born Darrell D'Silva, more convincingly Northern than Hartnett ever was), the deceased's other half (Luke Pasqualino), a hulking security guard (Heider Ali), and a chorus of models and stylists rendered volatile after hours of inhaling Silvikrin. There's a particular pip of a role for Clare Perkins, a seasoned trouper (EastEnders, Holby City) who - as Cleve, the most vociferous of the stylists - comes on not unlike Terry Stone in those Rise of the Footsoldier movies: effing, jeffing and generally giving it large in a way female characters written by men tend not to. It presents as a funny-strange calling card, a little airless and subterranean, and so eccentrically singular you can't quite tell, even after the choreographed cast dancing of the closing credits, what kind of filmmaker Hardiman wants to be. He's certainly a promising one, though, and Medusa Deluxe is plenty encouraging as the type of gamble the industry that backed Blow Dry in 2001 wouldn't have considered. Signs of progress within the British cinema, and perhaps something even more appropriate to the hirsute milieu of Hardiman's film: growth.

Medusa Deluxe is now playing in selected cinemas, and will be available to stream via MUBI on August 4.

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