'Kandisha' Is a Frightening Glimpse into a Paris Rarely Seen on Screen Directed by Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury
Starring Mathilde Lamusse, Suzy Bemba, Samarcande Saadi
Published Jul 28, 2021In Arabic mythology, jinn have as much being as humans do, though they are a separate entity: they are created of fire, while we mere mortals are forged of clay. A child growing up in a Muslim household would be taught to behave through stories of powerful, malicious, sometimes amiable jinn living among us — don't run around with a knife, you might stab an invisible jinni and incur its wrath. Sometimes, the cautionary tales went: look long enough and a jinni wearing a human body might betray their true nature by ever so slightly extending one arm longer than any human can. Not at all the loveable genie Robin Williams made famous, jinn are often terrifying beings only sometimes subdued by a human master. A friend of a friend of a friend always knows a man who had two jinn under his control.
Within the contours of this rife, roiling, vibrant mythology lies — or better yet, rests — Aicha Kandisha, the subject of Shudder's latest French horror-thriller, Kandisha. This flick is a feminist gem that, thankfully, gazes at the titular jinni for deliciously long enough, using her story to perform trenchant cultural commentary.
Written and directed by Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury, Kandisha begins with three teenage best friends, Amélie (Mathilde Lamusse), Bintou (Suzy Bemba) and Morjana (Samarcande Saadi), as they embark upon summer break with a plan to graffiti their way through their lower-income neighbourhood somewhere in Paris. It's a neighbourhood as unglamorous, gritty, and real as the one the French drama La Haine shone a bright light on in 1995.
The friends are close as sisters and each has had a difficult upbringing — as one tends to have in areas that are underfunded and over-policed. One night, after Amélie is attacked by a violent ex, she summons Aicha Kandisha, a jinni who goes after men who hurt women. Amélie doesn't think it'll work — it's just reflexive when she draws a pentagram using her own blood. But the three friends wake the next day to learn that the ex is dead, and that Aicha Kandisha is on a rampage to kill five more men to accumulate six souls. The rest of the film follows the girls desperately working to keep the men in their lives from meeting violent ends.
The first ten minutes of Kandisha are a visual and sonic revelation — this movie has a stellar soundtrack by Raf Keunen, and begins with a drone shot (courtesy of cinematographer Simon Roca) that allows us to take in this particular part of Paris. Tall buildings with balconies and clotheslines run like barcodes one upon the other — unlike the Paris often depicted in films, there are no scenic parks, no cute patisseries, nor any landscapes conducive to a black-turtlenecked existential crisis.
It is onto this bleak socio-economic landscape that Aicha Kandisha slinks. The film does a stellar job of exploring through horror how important men's lives are to women's and vice versa; how violence in marginalized neighbourhoods, which governments simultaneously foster and turn a blind eye to, saps them of the ability to thrive — or, as exemplified by Bintou's family, how violence is difficult to escape.
Kandisha has strong feminist undercurrents. Yes, Aicha Kandisha is badass for destroying men who are shitty to women, but look deeper and you will see an interrogation of the relationship between men and women in this film. Horror has always been an amazing genre for prodding the tender scar tissue of contentious issues, and Kandisha grapples with the question of what it means to love and lose men.
Through the workings of a captivating but terrifying jinni, Bustillo and Maury expose the systems working around the three girls: the way it kills young men through structures that maintain impoverishment, by demolishing living spaces, and by over-policing. Systemic factors lead to abuse within households and within interpersonal relationships. Kandisha shows up to crack this cycle wide open and expose a bleeding community in need of help that doesn't come.
Aicha Kandisha herself is a unique, mesmerizing vision to behold. She comes into the movie whispering sinisterly and sensually, her dark eyes heavily kohled and draped in a gauzy niqab, her breasts exposed. Her look is meant to be enticing to men, who, when they get near enough, she stamps the life out of, literally, with her hoofed feet. She hides in shadows, playing tricks with your sight and threatening Amélie's safety as she protects her brother.
Aicha Kandisha is an amazing monster, which is why it's a bit of a shame that she doesn't have much screentime. I could watch a movie dedicated solely to Aicha Kandisha, perhaps something in the vein of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Unfortunately, there are some holes in Aicha Kandisha's mythology — the movie calls her a jinni, but she used to be a human in the Middle Ages, meaning she could be a Qareen (a spiritual double). Other parts of her lore become a bit convoluted, too; for example, it's never satisfactorily explained why she needs souls.
Nevertheless, this movie compellingly, terrifyingly tells a unique tale peopled with loveable characters. If La Haine and 2016's Under the Shadow had a glorious, frightening child, that child would be Kandisha. We finally have a jinn movie in the West — bring on a hundred more! (Shudder)