Thursday, 10 June 2021

The Stylist

Death On The Style

The Stylist (2016 - short)
The Stylist (2020 - feature)

USA Directed by Jill Gevargizian
Arrow Films Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Some very light spoilers of stuff you probably already know.

I’ve wanted to see Jill Gevargizian’s The Stylist for a while now, as I’ve seen it promoted on my Twitter timeline fairly frequently during the pandemic lock down. I was going to just try and see a copy for free but when Arrow recently put it up for pre-order, they touted a specific extra that is always a deal maker for me when it comes to sealing a purchase. Now, I have to say in terms of what Arrow had said about an element of their otherwise brilliant package, I was a little disappointed. However, I’m happy I went ahead and pulled the trigger on this anyway because both the feature length version of The Stylist... and Gevargizian’s original short film which inspired it (which is also included in this package)... are absolutely stunning and I would have probably have ordered a physical copy anyway, once I’d seen it (okay, I would have waited for the sales but I would have got there eventually). So, in a way, I’m a little grateful to Arrow for mis-marketing this thing to me because, well, these two thrillers are just exquisite.

I decided to watch the short film first and, as it happens, this turned out to be exactly the right way to do this. It’s a small scale portrait of an unusual serial killer who is a hair stylist... which apparently used to be Gevargizian’s profession although, as far as I’m concerned, she’s a fully fledged superstar director now. The film starts off with a lovely, fluid moving camera at a Dutch angle to give the establishing shot of the hair salon that the main protagonist/antagonist Claire, played by Najarra Townsend, works in (I’ll say more about Townsend in a little while).

The film looks perfect and the director builds her frames with a leisurely pacing in terms of motion, some beautiful colours and some amazing compositions which sometimes pitch the action in just one half of the screen, leaving the remainder of the frame with just a background which immediately draws the focus of the eye in to what she wants you to invest in (she does this, also, in a slightly less subtle manner in the main feature, by way of changing the differential focus of a shot to highlight some keys, for example).

Anyway, she’s staying on late, on her lonesome in the salon to see a last client for the day and she plies her with wine as she’s working on her hair. At this point, as the client drinks her wine, the edits build and fade out to be replaced with different close up angles of the client, to give a soft realisation that something is not right. Soon she is out like a light as Claire has drugged her drink. Claire then ties her (something she doesn’t do in the main feature) and proceeds to kill her in a very specific way (which I’m trying not to spoil for you here)... and then we see her in her home environment as the extent of her madness is manifest more apparently in the character. At some point she reveals that her neck is scarred around the back and sides and she also starts crying, although it’s hard to tell if she’s empathising, showing remorse or something else. Nothing is really explained and I like it that way. Indeed, the director manages to preserve the ambiguity of some of the character elements in the main feature version too... and my hat off to her for that.

Okay... so onto the main feature, which took another four years to get to a release. Well, if you were worrying as to whether the short film would spoil your experience of watching the main feature film based on it, don’t be, it’s the perfect way to watch these (in fact, watching them in reverse will surely take the wind out of the sails of the short). The reason being that the first 15 minutes of the movie are an augmented remake of the 15 minutes of the short... as everything else after the first fifteen minutes is a continuation of Claire’s story (again played by Townsend) and not just an extended rerun which could also have been a possibility.

The film starts off with a wonderful shot of Claire approached by a slow zoom in her salon, drinking from a plastic cup which is similar to the ones you get in a Starbucks, where the barrista writes your name on the cup (we later, in a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ look at a poster, find out the name of the coffee chain in this film is Splitlog). It’s a nice, visual introduction to the name of the character and it almost makes it redundant that Claire immediately introduces herself to the feature’s incarnation of the first victim by name... I kinda wished the vocalisation of the name was held back for a scene or two.

We then get a remake of the short (minus Claire’s neck trauma, for some reason) and then it goes into an exploration of both Clare and another character, a future ‘wedding hair’ client called Olivia (played by Brea Grant, who I think I mentioned in my review of Video Palace - In Search Of The Eyeless Man, here). There’s a lovely split screen moment which the director uses a couple of times to point out the similarities in the lifestyles of Clare and Olivia (to some extent). Then the director starts to establish a building relationship between the bizarrely off-kilter Claire and Olivia, which of course comes to a head with a kind of perceived rejection of Claire (who I’m pretty sure has a crush on Olivia or, at the very least, is obsessed by her) later in the movie. And I don’t want to say too much about where the story goes although, I will say something non-specific about the ending in a little while.

Okay, so lets look at the style of The Stylist, so to speak. The feature eschews some of the things I liked such as the dutch angled opening and the soft cutting fades to different angles to visually replicate a drugged stupor... but it does a whole lot of other good stuff and looks absolutely wonderful. The colours throughout are simply ravishing juxtapositons which really throw themselves at the audience, culminating in intensity in a night club scene where Gevargizian pitches bright red, green, blue and orange lighting (so, two sets of opposite ends of the colour wheel, nice!) together in a series of shots where, to give it my term for this, she goes ‘the full Bava!’ There seems to be a lot of directors using this kind of Italian giallo and horror lighting style just recently and, it usually looks pretty good but, honestly, it looks absolutely first class here. The director and cinematographer obviously have a really good handle on how to push this kind of lighting without it being too ‘in your face’ but still manage to give you maximum vibrance in the shot. I was very impressed.

There’s another beautiful shot a little later where the colour scheme really smacks you in the face without phasing you, when a park bench Claire is sitting on has been painted bright yellow, which perfectly matches the beret she is wearing in the shot.

Another stylistic flourish brought in here... and it’s a similar thing I’ve seen done in one of my favourite early 1990s movies, The Hairdresser’s Husband (which I saw about five times at the Lumiere cinema back in the day)... and that is to show long and lingering shots of the handling of a woman’s hair in a sensual, almost fetishistic way. I dunno, maybe it’s just a thing films about hair stylists tend to do but, you know, it works for me so, no complaints.

Let’s talk about the performances then. Brea Grant is wonderful as Olivia and there’s also a nice, gory cameo from Gevargizian, the director herself, in one role... but it’s Najarra Townsend who really knocks it out the park here. If you’re going to have a movie where the narrative is almost entirely told from the viewpoint of the somewhat psychotic title character, then you need to get an actress who can make this work and Townsend certainly does this in both the short and feature length versions of The Stylist presented here. She really knows how to, quite subtly through gradual facial expressions, turn on the madness and then put the mask back on. There are some moments when you can just tell the character is completely overwhelmed by her emotions and Townsend really nails it here. Even though she’s a serial killing ‘loony toon’, there is a strong does of empathy/sympathy for the character coming through here which, obviously, really comes down to the brilliance of the performance. It’s a little like those old horror movies like King Kong, Frankenstein and Creature From The Black Lagoon... when you kind of feel sorry for the monster and want him/her to win? This performance ranks up there in terms of the way the character is handled and explored, even though she’s inevitably less of an iconic character than those big three I just named.

Now then, it has to be said that it was about half an hour before the end when I figured out how this story would finish.... even to the last shot of the film. This would normally irritate the hell out of me but, I then realised two things about the ending that countered my initial feeling of disappointment if, indeed, the story did end the way I thought it would (which it did). One is... well, there’s no way of getting around it, just because it’s a tad predicatable in its end game, it’s still the perfect ending for the feature length version of this film. It absolutely had to go there and... yeah it did. The other thing though, is that the director got me to that point in a totally different way to what I thought she would do. It was way more subtle, understated and held back from audience view than I thought it would be, playing the exact ‘reveal’ in its moment rather than building to it with a grisly bit of foreplay like many movies might... so that was unexpected and welcome, for sure, in terms of execution. So, again, well done to all involved for going about this in a way far from the usual expectations of this kind of piece.

And that’s all I have to say about the two versions of The Stylist but I will say that, the package disappointed me a little because the reason I pre-ordered this the day it went up online was because it includes a CD of the soundtrack... which I’d assumed to be the full score... which is wonderful, by the way, composer Nicholas Elert does a spellbinding and, more importantly, appropriate job on the score to both versions of The Stylist. Alas, even though it says on the back of the box in small print, “CD containing the original The Stylist soundtrack by Nicholas Elert”... only around four minutes of his score, represented by a single track, is present on the disc. The other seven tracks are just songs by other people... so, yeah, the main reason I purchased this wasn’t actually included at all, other than just those few minutes. I can’t get too angry at Arrow though because, as I said earlier, it made me buy the film and, frankly, it turns out The Stylist is always one I was going to want in my Blu Ray library. That being said, it’s stacked with the usual wealth of Arrow extras which I haven’t got around to exploring yet, including a visual essay by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, someone who I rate very highly in terms of critical writing (although I can never afford her books, sadly). CD aside, it’s a beautiful package and even includes a poster, which is nice for those who have any wall space left.

So yeah, my takeaway from this is that The Stylist, in all its forms, is a fantastic movie and I would have loved to get the opportunity to see this play on a cinema screen because it just looks so exquisitely beautiful that I would have gone back a couple of times, I think. As it is, I’m certainly going to need to remember to keep an eye out for Jill Gevargizian’s films in the future because she’s someone whose career, I think, will be very interesting to follow. And that’s me really done now. The Stylist gets nothing but a huge recommendation from me and if you’re a fan of the thriller genre then you really should take a look at this one, for sure.

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