Kandisha. 2021. Directed/Written by Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury.
Starring Mathilde Lamusse, Suzy Bemba, Samarcande Saadi, Meriem Sarolie, Sandor Funtek, Felix Glaux-Delporto, & Nassim Lyes.
Esprits Frappeurs / Wy Productions
Not Rated / 85 minutes
★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
DISCLAIMER: The following essay contains significant spoilers.
You’ve been warned.
Full disclosure: I’m a huge fan of Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury’s filmmaking partnership, so anything I write beyond here may, or may not, contain a heaping dose of bias. From the moment I bore witness to their ruthless 2007 film Inside I knew that whatever they did after that I’d have to make sure I was paying attention to it. In what are generally considered, by other critics, Bustillo and Maury’s ‘lesser’ works—like Livid or Among the Living; hell, even Leatherface—they still continually to boldly show off their style. The duo specialise in the dark and disturbing. Their latest film Kandisha certainly doesn’t stray from that style. It reminds me, in certain ways, of their 2011 film Livid because it brings in the supernatural, rather than focusing solely on human horrors like their other slasher-style pieces. Yet amongst the supernatural elements of Kandisha lies a deeply human terror, as the film briefly touches on social issues from misogyny and racism to the Gothic, haunting legacy of colonialism in France. Bustillo and Maury end up with a creepy film that’s brutally honest, though equally as brutal in its blood and guts.
Kandisha tells the story of a group of friends in Paris who must confront a Moroccan mythological come alive. When Amélie (Mathile Lamusse) is beaten and nearly raped by her ex Farid (Brahim Hadrami), she calls upon the folkloric figure of Aicha Kandicha to help her get vengeance. What she doesn’t realise until it’s too late is that Aicha Kandicha is very, very real, and what begins as a quest for vengeance spins out of control, leaving Amélie’s friends and their families dead in the aftermath. Can Kandicha ever be stopped?
Misogyny and sexism are clear, central focuses of the film, even in casual exchanges. The best instance is one that rings clear for contemporary audiences, specifically the women. In the opening introduction of Amélie’s friend Bintou (Suzy Bemba), we see Bintou wearing a Ramones t-shirt. She gets the typical male response to seeing a woman mention a band online, or in person: “Name one Ramones tune.” To many men it’ll sound like a foolish line, yet it reveals more than just an instance of throwaway dialogue to those paying attention, because in its casual sexism is revealed how ingrained sexist ideas are in young men. When we consider the casual sexism, and the misogynistic violence Amélie faces, Bustillo and Maury’s film positions their Aicha Kandicha as figuratively taking on the collective rage of women in the face of an inherently misogynistic society.
In a sense, Kandisha rewrites a somewhat sexist piece of lore. The story from which the film builds involves Aicha Kandicha seducing the men she kills. In the film, this version of Kandicha does not seduce the men she murders; there’s one brief moment where she takes on a more sexualised form, and that quickly ends with goat’s hooves, but she doesn’t seduce her victims here, merely appearing before them and then killing them. The folklore of Aicha Kandicha represents her as a succubus, a historically misogynistic and sexist portrayal of women. In the film she’s initially, via the legends, described as “the ghost of a beautiful woman who destroys men.” Bustillo and Maury’s Aicha Kandicha is no succubus, she’s a vengeful, bloody, demonic entity consuming any man in her path.
Something strange and interesting about Bustillo and Maury’s version of Aicha Kandicha is how she evolves from a female entity into one clearly more masculine and animal-like by the end of the film. She eventually shows off the hooves of the folkloric Kandicha, yet she also grows taller and her limbs start to resemble those of a man rather than a woman. It’s as if the more she kills, and the more power she gains, the more she becomes traditionally manly; in that corrosive, destructive power is a symptom of the patriarchy, and that Aicha Kandicha’s form itself in the legends is largely a product of patriarchal thought/values, being a woman who uses her sexuality to seduce men for nefarious, murderous purposes.
There’s a noticeable reading of the film in which we’re able to take into account the fact that Amélie’s from the working class and Kandicha was a countess—in other words, representative of the aristocracy; an obvious reading of the film where class comes into play. Class comes up earlier, too. Morjana teases Bintou, who says: “Don‘t call me bourgeois.” However, we do see Bintou at home with her father, who takes the bus to work and seems typical working class rather than actually being bourgeois. Then finally, they have to return to the old Gothic building in a dilapidated part of the city where they graffiti at night, the place where they first unearthed the legend of Aicha Kandicha, to ultimately defeat the evil entity after it’s run wild on half of Amélie’s friends; the film’s central urban Gothic location alone conjures the concept of class divisions and forgotten portions of a wealthy city.
Kandisha contains interesting postcolonial connections, considering Aicha Kandicha—in one version of the tale, from which Bustillo and Maury noticeably draw—was a Moroccan contessa resisting the Portuguese by killing soldiers. So it’s fascinating to me that this film’s depiction of Aicha Kandicha conjures her from the dead in the urban Gothic sprawl of contemporary France, where French colonialism—especially under a neoliberal president like Emmanuel Macron, whose ideas about reconciliation are what I’d call bullshit—continues to rot in the annals of the country’s history. There’s also a bunch of casual racism in the film’s early scenes, like when one of the male characters claims another of the guys would “never go with a Black chick” because he’s “scared of getting AIDS.” Or another line, pointed at a person of colour, which is only a joke between friends but goes to show the casual nature of the racism portrayed: “It‘s genetic, like you stealing cars.”
How does a postcolonial reading work with the white girl Amélie being the one who called Aicha Kandicha forth and then has to fight the demonic entity? What kind of reading does this produce? A decidedly negative one. Here, we can read the film’s finale as white folks conquering not only Paris, through the physical urban Gothic space of that hollowed out building, but further conquering the multicultural legends which exist within Parisian society, in this case a Moroccan(/North African) one. In that light, Amélie is, effectively, recolonising France by appropriating the folklore of another culture the French colonised, literally becoming Aicha Kandicha. Or, we could view Amélie’s sacrifice in becoming the new Aicha Kandicha as a white person making a real, tangible sacrifice in an effort to reconcile with the violence of France’s colonial history, though it doesn’t resonate as well with the dark ending.The first time I watched Kandisha I found it to be pretty creepy, and enjoyed its fair share of blood. I watched it a second time as I prepared to write about it and found myself digging much deeper into the themes. Apart from the interesting thematic elements of Bustillo and Maury’s film I also appreciated that, though there was the extremely serious threat of sexual assault and it plays a huge part in the plot, there wasn’t a need, as there has been in countless other horror films, to graphically exploit a woman and her sexual brutalisation. This is sad to even have to mention, but it must be said. Because many horror films opt to show explicit rapes and sexual assaults which takes horror to a much too personal, disturbing place. Bustillo and Maury are able to touch on misogynistic violence without ever having to exploit it, incorporating it into the plot then moving on to better, more interesting things. A lack of exploitation in the way Bustillo and Maury handle the plot allows the story’s themes, inadvertent or not, space to breathe. Kandisha manages to move beyond what could have otherwise been a basic story of supernatural vengeance run amok and transforms into a poignant meditation on postcolonial France and the misogynistic, human horrors women have faced for centuries and which they continue to face today.