Saoirse’s Cult Corner #3: Fashionista (2016)

In this column, cult columnist Saoirse takes you on a biweekly jaunt through the obscure annals of the cult film world. We’ll touch on everything from Giallo to J-Horror to Wakaliwood & so much more. If it’s a low budget genre film, or even a big-budget flop with a dogged audience, or even an undiscovered gem, it belongs here. 

This fortnight, we take a look at the 2016 horror drama, Fashionista. 

What a strange beast Fashionista is. Some have compared it to ‘Inland Empire’, the film itself is dedicated to Nicolas Roeg, but mainly I was thinking of artists like Claire Denis and her style of a film taken apart and then put back together, as inspired by Nicolas Roeg that might be. Or maybe ‘Mullholland Drive’ might be a better reference, or maybe Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Persona’, or maybe Peter Strickland’s ‘In Fabric’, or maybe John Cassavettes’ ‘A Woman Under The Influence’, or maybe Robert Altman’s ‘Images’, ‘Trouble Every Day’, Julia Ducournau’s ‘Raw’, or Dario Argento’s ‘Suspiria’, or Ari Aster’s ‘Hereditary’, or –

Oh dear, I need a minute. 

As I’m sure you can tell, this film, even for the fare of this column, is a weird one. It’s surreal, it’s non-linear, it’s structurally ambitious, it’s thematically complex. It moves from an extremely naturalistic observational piece to a paranoid relationship drama akin to William Friedkin’s ‘Bug’, into a strange, surreal erotic thriller to a bleak yet heartfelt addiction drama. The fact that it changes its gears so much is part of why it’s so constantly engaging, and the fact that it slips between these modes so seamlessly is thrilling and incredibly impressive in a way that constantly keeps you on your toes because you’re not quite sure what anything means yet, or where it’s going. The film feels like a very complex puzzle that you have to pay a lot of attention to in order to stand any chance of unlocking it, although it does reveal its own secrets in a way towards the end of the film. When it does this though, it doesn’t feel disappointing, it’s done very frankly and in the drama without exposition, and it feels like a reward for all the hard work you’ve put into the film. 

The film opens in the dead of night, showing one woman, (who we’ll return to in what, at first, look like flashbacks), entering “Eric’s Emporium”. We won’t see this woman interact with the linear narrative again for a solid 90 minutes of the movie. What we do see is the titular fashionista, April, played by Amanda Fuller in a really committed performance. She has an addiction to fabulous clothes, and wearing fabulous clothes. In the way of some classic Giallo, she and the film fetishise what is aesthetically beautiful, over what is actually sexual.  When I say that, what I mean is, Simon Rumley directed this film, and his thing, as far as I can tell, is demonstrating internal states through the medium of film. The film is about a woman who fetishes beautiful clothes, thus, the film does also. Anyway, she slowly becomes convinced that her husband is cheating on her, she then starts flirting with this absolute slimy git who keeps complimenting her but exerts a troubling amount of control. However, because April is using him as an emotional crutch she doesn’t realise quite what she’s getting herself into. To quote ‘BoJack Horseman’, when you’re looking at the world through rose-tinted glasses, “all the red flags, just look like flags”. What follows is a descent into mania. 

She is haunted by visions of herself being seen by… something at her lover’s flat, bathed in orange light. This is a recurring vision that gets longer and more detailed ever time, including some potent Barbie imagery, which given the title might be an illusion to the Barbie Fashionista line, troublingly marketed as “curvy” and “original Barbie”. In this way, the film could be read as a comment on the way the media encourages women to sexualise themselves, although the film does seem to be a lot more sympathetic to April’s wants and desires than that. Personally, I think the film is far more compelling and interesting just as a pure character study of one woman’s obsessions, foibles, and compulsions. That being said the way the film ends provides an interesting comment on these themes as the film descends into a very straight addiction drama for a period. Don’t fear though, the film returns to surrealism quickly enough. April is also haunted by visions of the woman from the opening shot being let out of some kind of medical facility in stages. Are these flashbacks? Are they premonitions? Who knows. 

It is interesting that Simon Rumley is very well known as a British filmmaker. Although his most famous film is deeply American thriller ‘Red, White & Blue’. I first found Rumley through ‘Crowhurst’, which deals with deeply British ideas of nationalism & the independent effort of a lone man against the world. ‘Fashionista’ then is interesting in how it speaks to deeply American values of what a woman is, and a national obsession with consumerism & how being a consumer directly links to one’s value as a person. It makes these observations in ways that only an outsider can make. I shouldn’t even need to point out the way an American film called ‘Red, White & Blue’ deals with ideas of nationalism & national identity. Just as an aside though, ‘Crowhurst’ is a masterpiece, I personally prefer it to ‘Fashionista’, but ‘Crowhurst’ distinctly falls less easily into a cult film rubric. If you need to know anything about the way Simon Rumley approaches filmmaking, look at ‘Crowhurst’ and know that the same year, the same distributor put out ‘The Mercy’ starring Colin Firth about the same real-life story. Then compare the approach taken by the two films. Rumely makes genre films, surreal genre films, edgy genre films, but they are first and foremost intensely compelling character dramas, unpicking universal neuroses in a deeply experiential and visceral way. There are films that explain and show you feelings, and then there are films that make you feel them. Rumley is in the latter camp. 

Mark Kermode, my favourite film critic, has in the past talked about there being two very distinct traditions of British filmmaking. On the one hand, you have your Ken Loaches, your Mike Leighs, your Alan Clarkes. On the other, Powell & Pressburger, Nicolas Roeg, Danny Boyle,Lynne Ramsay, Ben Wheatley, and Micheal Winterbottom. The visionaries, the surrealists, the expressionists, the people who understand exactly how you manipulate the medium of film instead of merely using it. I think that the fact that Simon Rumley isn’t recognised and hailed as being firmly at the centre, the precipice, the bleeding edge of this tradition of British film, is frankly, shameful.

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