April (Amanda Fuller) and Eric (Ethan Embry) are a hipster couple who run a vintage clothing store in Austin, Texas. Eric seems to be having an affair with one of the store’s other employees, a speculation that moves April to paranoia and comfort in her clothing fetish; she literally smells garments from the piles of stock they keep in their apartment, rubbing them up and down her body, sighing in pleasurable relief. When the relationship blows up in their faces, April storms off into the arms of a strange sugar daddy who has a knack for fashion and other kinky games up his sleeve.
This is the general synopsis of Simon Rumley’s new film Fashionista, playing at this year’s Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal, as well as other festivals around the world. The film has potential, draws viewers in, and twists the plot about halfway through. What makes this small budget, independent thriller even more mysterious is its distinctive editing style. It cuts to another scene a bit too quickly, opening up to some other intriguing visual or situation, introducing us to characters who remain on the oblique margins of the movie until its conclusion. If one feels like the non-chronological, perhaps “psychological” editing style is familiar it might be because it is a technique directly lifted from filmmaker Nicolas Roeg, used in films such as Walkabout (1971) and Don’t Look Now (1973), but more particularly Bad Timing (1980). While Rumley directly credits Roeg as an inspiration, a slowly establishing filmmaker directly likening himself to such a significant name is something that almost dooms the inspired party to failure.
It is not only distinctive editing that leaves this reviewer wanting more out of Fashionista. Some of the performances are suspect as well in a hit or miss type of way. Amanda Fuller is basically left to carry the entire film on her own, something that viewers can decide the success of for themselves. A feeling of ambivalence washes some scenes in which it is questionable whether the lead actress brings enough power to the role.
The performance that is without a doubt lacking is that of Eric Balfour in the role of smarmy sugar daddy, Randall. It is difficult to tell if Randall doesn’t seem fully there because of the acting or the screenplay. The most memorable scene he haunts involves a monologue in which he waxes philosophical about his love of women’s clothing: “You know I love women’s clothes, what they do to you, to women. Y’know some of my guy friends—they think it’s queer that I’m so into women’s clothes, and I argue with them, and y’know what? I always win. If you’re a man that loves women? How could you not care about what caresses their body, what gives shape to their femininity, what accentuates their sexuality. A pretty woman is a pretty woman, right? If you put the right woman in the right clothes, it becomes transcendental. A goddess, a force of nature, breathtaking. Dangerous. Valentino knew that. Versace knew it. McQueen absolutely knew that. And I know it.”
As Randall gives this suave monologue, it actually seems to make sense, making viewers believe that he is one hell of a man to not just admit, but be proud of his fashion fixation. However, giving it some extra thought, one might begin to wonder how this guy wins these arguments he has with his friends. Near the start he makes sure to disassociate his fashion sense with queerness, only to group himself with Valentino, Versace, and McQueen by the end. How does he win this hetero argument by using only gay fashion designers as examples to back him up? Frankly, the film would have been more dynamic and interesting if Randall had a bisexual streak, allowing for him to bamboozle April even more than he does as the film continues. Instead Rumley plays the kink card, with our characters soon finding themselves playing games among “consenting adults.”
Returning to the film’s Roeg-homage via editing, it makes one think about the outcome of telling the story in a cut up, ambiguous manner. While Fashionista does have a confusing twist ending, it is not particularly enhanced by the editing style leading up to that moment. Regardless of Roeg’s editorial intent in Bad Timing, the cutting has been interpreted as holding a significant power in the delivery of the film. Bad Timing is about a college professor named Alex (Art Garfunkel) who has a harrowing relationship with Milena (Theresa Russell) a wild, drug-addled woman. At one point he rapes, or “ravishes” her while she is unconscious, a crime that he never admits to, despite an interrogation by police inspector Netusil (Harvey Keitel). Among other things, the editing style heightens the suspense—and frustration—over whether Alex will admit to the crime and have to atone for it. It doesn’t resolve anything, but constipates the narrative, a technique that a film like Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) is known for. There is no satisfying resolution. Fashionista is different from Bad Timing in that its conclusion does not withhold answers, but ends by bringing up new questions. Rumley does not achieve the same effect as Roeg does via editing.
In her book Alice Doesn’t film theorist Teresa de Lauretis writes, “Its problem, I think, is not displeasure but unpleasure. Bad Timing undercuts the spectators’ pleasure by preventing both visual and narrative identification, by making it literally as difficult to see as to understand events and their succession, their timing; and our sense of time becomes uncertain in the film, as its vision for us is blurry.” (88) While Fashionista appears to have a similar editing style, it does not accomplish the same feats that Bad Timing does. There is no sense of “unpleasure” in Rumley’s film, an effect that is very risky to pull off and that Roeg is reckless enough to succeed with. Fashionista has a structure that doesn’t get past the superficiality of style. De Lauretis explains how Roeg succeeds in creating a film that defies visual pleasure through the male gaze that fellow theorist Laura Mulvey wrote about to such great effect previously. Comparing Bad Timing to such 1970’s international classics as In the Realm of the Senses, The Night Porter, and Saló, de Lauretis writes “All these films deliberately seek to articulate the sexual, the political, and the cinematic through a sustained questioning of vision and power.” (87-8) Fashionista has some entertaining points, but does not find itself at all near the caliber of these subversive classics.
De Lauretis, Teresa. Alice Doesn’t: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana U Press, 1984.