From The Devil Wears Prada to Confessions of a Shopaholic, fashion has primarily received surface level comedy treatment. Simon Rumley endeavours to change that fact with Fashionista, a psychological thriller that takes a no-holds-barred look behind the curtain of one woman’s fetishistic obsession with clothing: simultaneously a Freudian fever dream entwined with a contemporary reworking of the sort of bleak romance found in Wuthering Heights, it’s a fascinating, if flawed ride into the perverse recesses of sexuality.
April (Amanda Fuller) is the focus of this intense journey down the rabbit hole of desire. Proprietor of a vintage clothing store in Austin, Texas, April lives with her husband Eric (Ethan Embry). While this sounds like a stress-free set-up, unbeknownst to Eric, April has developed a sensuous, sexual relationship with clothing: trying on various items at night, she performs a recurring ritual, inhaling the scents of her attire up until a point of climactic release. It remains manageable, that is, until April uncovers a truth: Eric is having an affair with a work colleague (Jemma Evans). Upon discovering this, April’s totemic lust begins to escape her control, slowly driving her to madness as she inadvertently falls deeper into a secret, Sadistic world.
The Freudian overtones are clear, as the film willingly dives into some complex, oft-repressed subject matter. However, what’s so interesting is the perspective. Psychoanalysis is infamously in favour of the side of the male. But Fashionista skates around this bias by divulging desirous issues from a female angle. It recalls Jonathan Glazer’s feminist sci-fi, Under The Skin in this regard. Rather than attempting to explain “the nature of female sexuality”, Fashionista, like Glazer’s film, simply presents it as fulfilling yet volatile: virility isn’t a concern here as April takes centre stage, with the film conveying the intricacies of her mental state as she cedes to the overwhelming aspects of her sexuality.
It does take a little while to get going, opting to explore April and Eric’s relationship early on: the dramatic tension doesn’t quite land, with their conflict feeling a little generic and consequently underplayed by the respective actors. However, upon meeting the mysterious, nigh-on vampiric Randall (Eric Balfour), Fashionista kicks into a higher gear, following through on its early promise: the frank, bold representation of female sexuality. Aesthetically, bold proves to be the ideal adjective. The comparison to Glazer remains apt, with a further hint of influence from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn. With luscious neon hues illuminating the trippier sequences of the film, heightened by Richard Chester’s high-pitched electronic score and Vincent Watts’ unsettling sound effects, Fashionista is willing to play with an artistic flair that amplifies the insatiability of April’s wants and needs, maturing into something a little more challenging as a result.
Eric Balfour’s performance adds another chink to Rumley’s horror-thriller chain, as he brings a callous charm to the role of Randall, a character that bares a subtle resemblance to the alluring Heathcliff, with a trace of the Marquis de Sade to boot. An extreme for certain, but one that Balfour manages to underplay: while Fuller and Embry sometimes struggle to find the right balance in their roles, Balfour plays it cool, calm and collected, until the film calls for a more forceful approach.
Unfortunately, while its third act builds until it reaches a perceivable boiling point, it doesn’t make for a satisfying cup of tea, if you will, as its final revelation undermines Rumley’s themes and narrative development. Fashionista is a difficult watch, populated with disturbing images that suggest a dark conclusion. Alternatively, it deals an optimistic catharsis that feels unearned, betraying the film’s initial intentions.
Nevertheless, Fashionista is worth a watch, indicative of the tormenting talent that Rumley possesses. With this and the recently released Crowhurst, Rumley demonstrates his effortless ability to create tension, craft unnerving sequences and engage the spectator in a way that perpetuates the film’s intended effect post-viewing. And while Fashionista doesn’t quite reach the brilliantly balanced heights of Crowhurst, it still demands to be seen: Freud, fashion and death all come into play, culminating in a disobediently effective horror-thriller that gives female sexuality the attention it deserves.
Dir: Simon Rumley
Scr: Simon Rumley
Prd: Doug Abbott, Adam Goldworm, Tim League, Bob Portal, Simon Rumley
Starring: Amanda Fuller, Ethan Embry, Eric Balfour
DOP: Milton Kam
Music: Richard Chester
Fashionista is available on VOD platforms now.