Medusa Deluxe is a Riotously Camp Peek into the World of Competitive Hairdressing and an Absurd Whodunnit

“It’s a dangerous business,” says the permanently aggressive Cleve, a hairdresser competing in a regional competition. Thomas Hardiman’s high camp debut feature Medusa Deluxe starts with horrors inside a hairbrush reeling the audience in to one of the most deadpan and ironic whodunnits of the year. As Robbie Ryan’s impeccable cinematography weaves the audience through a mystery of excess and obsession one could be forgiven for thinking Hardiman has done for hairdressing what Peter Strickland did for weird performance art in Flux Gourmet.

Mosca (John Roberts), a noted salon owner has been found scalped – his glorious head of hair found in a locker. Almost anyone could have done it. There is a dizzying array of suspects; from Cleve (Clare Perkins) who had a long-standing feud with Mosca that led her to “Wonk him on the back of the head” with a glass bottle of conditioner once she found out he had been cheating on one of her salon employees, to Kendra (Harriet Webb) who seems curiously unmoved by his death, to the mysterious Patricio (Nicholas Karimi) whose appearance no-one seems to welcome, and the exhausted René (Darrell D’Silva) who was once Mosca’s lover and is now running the competition. And just who is the bald security guard, Gac (Heider Ali) and what was he doing in the stairwell with Mosca the night before?

Once the film starts it doesn’t slow down. The labyrinthine geography of the venue with its multiple levels and dressing rooms becomes a Clue board with the potential weapons being cans of hairspray, straightening rods, the sharp scissors worn around the waists of the stylists, and wig stands. All of these hairdressing staples are gloriously captured with a sense of fetishist glee. Models become amateur sleuths—Inez (Kae Alexander) and Etsy (Debris Stevenson) being hilarious standouts. 

Into the chaos comes Mosca’s lover, Angél (Luke Pasqualino) toting their baby Pablo (who constantly gets handed off to other people to watch) who has a particular aversion to Patricio and a terror that something is coming for him too. Could it be a result of the illegal hair loss pills Propecia he and Mosca have been pushing? What fingers has Mosca been dipping into the wrong pies that led to his death? Did anyone with the exception of Angél and René even like the ageing hairdresser? It seems not, even his model Timba (Anita-Joy Uwajeh) is offended by his characterising her as the “inverted pear” and points out that his decision to do a particular style erases her cultural identity.

Only Divine (Kayla Meikle) seems to find some level of calm in the fray. She’s lost her salon and now works freelancing with a mortician. She’s found God and is ready to forgive – even the factious Cleve who calls her work basic and Divine notes really is “crazy, like volatile hysteria shit.” It’s Divine who notes the melancholy of being a hairdresser, a space where you spend so much time looking in mirrors at other people that you forget to see yourself and one day you notice you’ve gotten old.

For all the hyperkinetic campness there is some incisive social commentary. Cleve creates a (prophetic) Georgian fontange with a neon replica of The Orient, a Napoleonic era wartime maritime vessel on Angie’s (Lilit Lesser) head and tells Divine she should learn her history. The history of hair, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality is something Hardiman’s script plays with. Where the hair for weaves comes from (nowhere good). How class is baked into the service industry. How youth is worshipped. Hair is the “The crown you can never take off. It’s dead the minute it leaves the follicle.” Why are we all obsessed with the dead stuff on our heads?

The production design, costumes, and obviously the wigs and hairstyles are astonishing. There are times when style overcomes substance. However, when the style includes glittering disco balls, nods to giallo, full choirs singing in the background of a style reveal, and the characters all doing an amazing choreographed dance over the credits, so much can be forgiven for how amusing it all is.

Medusa Deluxe seems destined to become a camp classic and it’s easy to suspect Hardiman knew that from the moment the ideas began circling his mind. It’s devoted to the hairdressing community – one that is known for bitchiness and rivalry, yet one that also has a wonderfully rich history and has been a space where queer people have thrived. Medusa Deluxe doesn’t have the isolated weirdness of Jill Gevargizian’s The Stylist or the horror comedy elements of Justin Simien’s Bad Hair – but its arguably more fondly assembled than both. It also doesn’t reach the emotional resonance of Todd Stephens’ Swan Song. If you aren’t prepared to see the loving satire of the film the whole thing might fall flat like an under teased bouffant. It’s a “wavelength” experience and not everyone is going to dial in to it.

Director: Thomas Hardiman

Cast: Luke Pasqualino, Lilit Lesser, Clare Perkins

Writer: Thomas Hardiman

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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