'Fashionista': Film Review | Tallinn 2016
British director Simon Rumley pays homage to his cinematic heroes in this experimental psycho-horror thriller set in Austin, Texas.
As the closing titles roll on Fashionista, it comes as no surprise to see writer-director Simon Rumley explicitly credit the films of Nicolas Roeg as inspiration. This tribute from one cult British psycho-thriller maestro to another is more than just routine pan-generational lip service. The 88-year-old Roeg recently came out of semiretirement to exec produce Rumley's upcoming feature, Crowhurst.
Fashionista is one of three pictures Rumley has completed this year, but it feels more artistically ambitious than his previous low-budget slasher-horror releases. Reuniting him with many of the key cast and crew from his 2010 revenge thriller, Red White & Blue, including female lead Amanda Fuller (Grey's Anatomy), this experimental study in obsession and addiction could be the film to finally break Rumley out of his fan-friendly, genre-focused festival comfort zone. It makes its European debut this week at Black Nights Film Festival in Tallinn, Estonia.
Bohemian thirtysomething couple April (Amanda Fuller) and Eric (Ethan Embry) run a cavernous vintage clothing store in Austin, Texas. Business is booming, but cracks are showing in the relationship. When April's growing fears about Eric's infidelity prove true, she takes revenge by clearing out a mountain of clothes from the storage space in their apartment and torching it in a field. She then begins an affair with sharp-dressed playboy Randall (Eric Balfour), a narcissistic control freak with a chic modernist mansion and some pretty extreme sexual appetites. Out of the frying pan, into the furnace.
As April's sanity is methodically picked apart by abusive men, she retreats into her fetishistic obsession with clothes. Rumley shoots these intimate interactions with outfits and fabrics as a kind of delirious pornographic ritual, tingling with sensory overload and orgasmic rapture. Meanwhile, Randall's sadomasochistic sex parties take a nightmarish turn into American Psycho territory, though by this point it becomes hard to separate real events from April's paranoid hallucinations. Chaos reigns, and lethal violence ensues.
Running in parallel with this main plot, Rumley prods our curiosity with ominous recurring glimpses of a mysterious young woman (Alex Essoe) checking herself out of a mental health hospital and heading into Austin. He also shuffles the entire narrative timeline like a deck of cards, splicing creepy visions and fragmentary flash-forward premonitions of events to come into the action, most obviously in the sense-scrambling second half.
This purposely nonlinear editing style is an overt homage to Roeg, and there are other allusions too, from the cryptic identity-blurring finale of Performance to the dangerous psycho-sexual power games of Bad Timing. Indeed, Fuller's passing resemblance to Roeg's ex-wife and longtime muse, Theresa Russell, may even have been a factor in her casting.
At times, Fashionista risks confusing viewers with its crazy paving rhythms and inscrutable ending. Rumley could comfortably cut 10 or 15 minutes of loopy repetitions out without sacrificing any crucial narrative material. But there is much to savor here too, including Fuller's robustly committed performance, some nerve-jangling visual shocks and a rich soundtrack loaded with bluesy rock, pounding techno and deranged fairground piano.
April's clothes-fetish interludes could have lapsed into high camp, but they have a real sinister charge akin to the addiction scenes in Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream. The authentic texture of Austin itself is also pleasingly present on screen, with its tattoo-covered slackers, grungy cocktail bars and laid-back love of weirdness. Both stylish and creepy, Fashionista is Rumley's best film to date.