On paper, a film about a fashion-obsessed woman on a downward spiral when her seemingly stable relationship goes askew would be prime terrain for some misogyny-driven ugliness about women and vanity. In the hands of master genresmith Simon Rumley, however, it’s quite the opposite — a flawless dive into the subjectivity of loss, trauma and physical sensation.
Fashionista sees British filmmaker Rumley reunite with the star of his 2010 thriller Red, White & Blue Amanda Fuller, who here plays April. Along with her bearded sweetheart Eric — acting stalwart Ethan Embry, whose recent horror high points include Sean Byrne’s The Devil’s Candy and Adrián García Bogliano’s Late Phases — April is co-owner of a vintage clothing store in Austin, Texas. Both their home and shop are packed to the proverbial rafters with beautiful things, including attractive women employees, one of whom April learns Eric has a more than purely professional relationship with. Failing to cope with the shock of his betrayal, April’s affection for clothes becomes something less wholesome and her jealousy drives her towards another man, Randall (played to sleazy perfection by Eric Balfour). But her love for Eric and her passion for fashion push her unrelentingly towards what, in retrospect, feels like an inevitable conclusion.
Despite its focus on vintage fashion, Rumley avoids the obvious aesthetic strategy of clichéd Instagram filter-like retro-ism, and while the clothes may come from a bygone era, Fashionista is very much a product of the contemporary moment. Likewise, the film’s harder ‘high fashion’ moments as April spends more time with Randall — whose ominous motives for using her as a human Barbie doll upgrade project are revealed in one of the most uncomfortable, perverse and yet oddly discrete sexual encounters likely to be seen on screen this year — flirt with fashion magazine gloss, without tipping into parody. That Alexandra Essoe from Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer’s 2014 horror gem Starry Eyes makes a small but important appearance in Fashionista is of no small significance: like that earlier film (the thinking person’s Neon Demon), Fashionista shrewdly uses its low-budget grit to defamiliarise — rather than fetishise — the very glamour that lies at its core.
Like so many of Rumley’s previous films including Red, White & Blue, The Living and the Dead (2006) and his donations to the horror anthologies Little Deaths (2011) and The ABCs of Death (2012), Fashionista’s punch stems from the intensity of its moods and tones more than anything else. Here, that power is made aggressively tactile and explicitly haptic as it is increasingly punctuated by close ups of April’s hands touching, scrunching, patting and caressing the different kinds of fabrics that she wears on her body. “Fashion victim” is one of those dismissive metaphors lightly thrown around in reference to those overly susceptible to the industry’s defining allure of vanity and consumerism, but in Fashionista Rumley renders it achingly tragic through the figure of April. In one unforgettable scene near the film’s conclusion, she stumbles through a designer boutique looking for a quick fashion fix like a comedy drunk. For another director, this might come across as patronising or even silly, but the combined forces of Rumley and Fuller render it nothing less than flat-out devastating.
Less a straightforward horror film than a heartbreaking psycho-thriller, Rumley has frequently cited the films of Nicolas Roeg as an inspiration and that influence is felt both in its shrewdly executed aesthetic strategies and the near stifling intensity of its central, unfolding drama. While not as well-known perhaps as some of Roeg’s earlier films — Performance (1970) Walkabout (1971), Don’t Look Now (1973) and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) — Fashionista arguably recalls most immediately his comparatively underrated Bad Timing (1980), a film that pits passive-aggressive dickhead Alex (Art Garfunkel in one of the most brilliant performances of early ’80s British cinema) against Theresa Russell’s Milena, a woman living with mental health issues that he becomes sexually obsessed with. While Roeg tells much of his story from Alex’s perspective, Rumley flips it so that it is the suffering, unstable woman that is the primary point of audience alignment. But both films share a fundamental desperation, a sense of clinging-too-tightly; these are movies that leave you if not gasping for air as such, then certainly yearning for a return to some kind of equilibrium, both ethically, spiritually and psychologically.
In Fashionista, Rumley draws us in and takes us down with April and Eric as they descend into a life far from the idyllic hipster fantasy they are living when we first meet them. As April clutches at her frocks and skirts, culls and hordes, grips and strays, Rumley pulls us in far too tightly towards her for us to make any kind of objective moral judgement: usually, we are as bewildered as to what is going on as she is, the film’s often ambiguous and frequently disturbing twists and turns unfolding with little foreshadowing or even concrete context. Far from wobbly filmmaking, it is this precise decision that binds us to April and makes her journey our own.