IFFR 2021 review: Black Medusa (Youssef Chebbi & ismaël)

A mixture of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Promising Young Woman, Black Medusa, the debut feature of Tunisian brothers Youssef Chebbi and ismaël (the latter deliberately going by this lowercase first-name moniker), is an intoxicating portrait of the double life led by a young woman in post-revolutionary Tunis. Shot in stark black and white, and accompanied by an intense soundscape and harrowing score, the film mimics their heroine’s breaking of society’s rules. Something is missing though. Black Medusa is an impressive exercise in style but leaves the viewer wanting a bit more substance in its enigmatic central character.

By day Nada (Nour Hajri) is a reclusive young woman in a boring office job. She doesn’t speak. By night she picks up men in Tunis’ vibrant nightlife. Here too, she doesn’t speak. She listens to their stories. She goes home with them. And then she kills them. A female co-worker (Rym Hajouni) showing more than a friendly interest in Nada makes her open up the shell a little, but finding a mystical knife in the home of one of her victims sets her on an accelerated murderous path. The question remains: why?

Sadly that question is never really answered in Black Medusa. Chebbi and ismaël clearly allude to a rape in Nada’s past, both through knowing full well that the viewer will instinctively think in that direction and through giving some of the killings a sexual charge, with Nada plunging the knife in over and over again in repetitive motion while panting and moaning. From exertion or from pleasure, that is unclear. Black Medusa keeps the audience in the dark about Nada’s motives and background, never (both literally and figuratively) coloring in the character. The film is mostly set in the dark too as the story is told in nine nights, possibly a reference to Dante’s nine circles of hell that Nada has to go through to… well, to what exactly?

Not allowing us any insight into its protagonist, Black Medusa over time becomes a frustrating watch. Chebbi and ismaël give precedence to atmosphere and breaking with the general aesthetic of North-African cinema, drawing sharp lines on a highly contrasted canvas and adding deep, unfocused close-ups and an almost oppressive sound design (incredible work by Amal Attaia) to instill unease into their audience, entrancing them like the titular Greek Gorgon. A puzzling voice-over telling the story of a man who finds himself in a deep hole he cannot get out of adds to the deliberate fog of mystery Chebbi and ismaël conjure up, hiding the substance missing from Nada. Despite an impressive look and feel to the film, Black Medusa remains a somewhat unsatisfactory experience that raises more questions than it answers.