Whether she is known as Bloody Mary, La Llorona or Oiwa, the ghostly tale of a woman who suffers cruel betrayal and thus wanders the Earth as a vengeful entity is ubiquitous across most cultures. For their latest feature, French directors Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo turn to the myth of Aicha Kandisha—a Moroccan djinn inspired by the real-life 14th century guerilla fighter—who wreaks havoc on a small French city, specifically a group of teenage friends and their families. Despite achieving formidable scares and clever callbacks to the filmmakers’ debut Inside, a sinister specter of clumsy cultural engagement lingers in Kandisha.
Well within the throes of summer vacation, best friends Amélie (Mathilde La Musse), Bintou (Suzy Bemba) and Morjana (Samarcande Saadi) fill their days with impressive street graffiti projects and the occasional fling with local boys. After tagging an abandoned building, Amélie notices the name “Kandisha” spray painted behind some moldy wallpaper. Morjana, whose family is from Morocco, fills her in: “In a nutshell, she’s the ghost of a beautiful woman who destroys men.” After the trio giggle over the incredulousness of the story, they each embark home in the wee hours of the morning with the careful intention of not waking their parents. On her lonely walk, Amélie crosses paths with an abusive ex-boyfriend who knocks her out and attempts to rape her. Miraculously managing to flee, Amélie decides to see if the legend is true. She crudely draws a pentagram in her own blood and chants the name Aicha Kandisha five times. The next morning, her ex is dead—but Kandisha is still not satisfied, taking the opportunity to prey on the fresh French selection of men in the city.
The legend of Aicha Kandisha (sometimes spelled Kandicha) is widely believed in Morocco, perhaps because its origins sprout from a historical foundation. During 14th century Portuguese colonization efforts, Aicha Kandisha was said to be a Moroccan guerilla fighter who strategically seduced enemy troops in order to disarm them and slit their throats. In fact, the name Kandisha is posited to be an Arabic interpretation of the Portuguese word her enemies called her: La Condessa, or The Countess. After the execution of her family and husband by vengeful Portuguese troops, Kandisha fled into the surrounding forest, where she allegedly transformed into a malevolent djinn with camel’s legs and soulless black eyes, forever damned to seduce men to their doom. Though the tale was originally passed down via oration, centuries of retellings and narrative flourishes inevitably and singularly rendered Kandisha into the fearsome woman-monster hybrid associated with her name. Though the nature of her resistance against Western imperialism in her homeland clearly merits keeping her memory alive, the macabre elements of her struggle took over her narrative completely.
It makes perfect sense for a Francophone film to be made about the Kandisha myth, as France has the highest population of Moroccans outside of Morocco due to the history of French colonial rule (and a continued institutional presence) in the North African country. In 2008, Moroccan-French director Jérôme Cohen-Olivar presented his take on the demonic djinn, also titled Kandisha, which follows a renowned French lawyer as she takes the case of a Moroccan woman suspected of killing her husband—in spite of the defendant being steadfast in her belief that the Kandisha is the one responsible for her husband’s untimely demise. The 2008 film’s established setting of Morocco certainly gives further credence to the roots of the myth; meanwhile Maury and Bustillo’s Kandisha brings her reign of terror to France.
There is a subtle hint of Islamophobia inherent in the premise of the entity terrorizing this French city being a Arabic woman donning religious garb, as it immediately brings forth recent legislative restrictions in the country involving what Muslim women can and can’t wear in a “secular” environment. Unlike Cohen-Olivar, Maury and Bustillo have the distinction of not hailing from the country they are borrowing folklore from, relegating some of the film’s engagement with the legend and how it intersects with Islamic practice to sensationalistic and shaky ground. Their efforts to superficially engage with the Moroccan-sourced mythology of Kandisha also can’t salvage the dismissal of her initial struggle against Western rule—a throughline which could have brought forth an engaging discussion of France’s imperial past and current xenophobia.
However, what the filmmakers achieve through their script and direction is a wickedly successful creature feature that highlights an underrepresented but widely-held fear among a considerable portion of France’s populace. The portrayal of Kandisha is incredibly layered and diverse, manifesting as mysterious, alluring and abjectly horrifying during different appearances. The viewer tandemly craves and dreads her arrival on-screen, which is an incredibly effective approach to keep the monster from losing its edge after multiple kills. The deaths are also cleverly fused with supernatural elements alongside the directors’ penchant for massive blood loss and bodily evisceration. When it comes to keeping the mounting body count compelling, Maury and Bustillo’s twisted creativity ensures each kill is brutal, both in terms of gore and toying with established emotional stakes. There are also a litany of entertaining allusions to the duo’s previous work, most notably Inside: Hiding from an assailant in a blood-smeared bathroom; a visibly pregnant woman; the foreboding presence of a small animal and the unbelievable lengths a scorned woman will go through in order to seek revenge.
Kandisha renders strength from the filmmakers’ close following of the original myth, from the djinn’s predisposition to haunting abandoned spaces, her reflection often appearing in pools of water and the ability to summon her through drawing a pentagram. However, the tangible trauma of a woman who engaged in an anti-colonial struggle being used as fodder for a cautionary ghost story is worth much more exploration into the misogynistic roots of the legend than the directors are interested in. Conversely, Amélie’s decision to conjure Kandisha evokes an interesting dialogue concerning France’s colonial past in Morocco—these French people are suddenly “at war” with a being which they chose to confront, and in turn grow increasingly frustrated when their dismissal of its power is not enough to quell it into submission. Though Kandisha could have been more diligent in investigating what it means for a woman in control of her sensuality to be forever remembered as a monster as opposed to a martyr, its superb grasp of tension and earnest attempt to grapple with the cross-cultural implications of the Moroccan folktale absolutely warrants a watch.
Directors: Julien Maury, Alexandre Bustillo
Writers: Julien Maury, Alexandre Bustillo
Stars: Mathilde La Musse, Suzy Bemba, Samarcande Saadi, Meriem Sarolie, Walid Afkir, Félix Glaux-Delporto, Nassim Lyes Si Ahmed, Dylan Krief, Bakary Diombera, Brahim Hadrami
Release Date: July 22, 2021 (Shudder)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste Magazine, Blood Knife Magazine and Filmmaker Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan