[Fantastic Fest 2020] Death, Desire, & Tradition in THE STYLIST

The Stylist. 2020.
Directed by Jill Gevargizian.
Screenplay by Gevargizian, Eric Havens, & Eric Stolze.
Starring Najarra Townsend, Brea Grant, Laura Kirk, Sarah McGuire, Jennifer Seward, & Millie Milan.

Sixx Tape Productions / Method Media / Claw Productions

Not Rated / 105 minutes


The following essay contains SPOILERS!

Father Son Holy Gore - The Stylist - Najarra Townsend as ClaireThere aren’t enough movies by women about women in general, even less where women’s desire is concerned, and doubly so when it comes to queer women’s desire. The Stylist touches on a lot of things about women, from queerness and desire to friendship in general. Jill Gevargizian elaborates on her previous short film to offer an interesting look at what social isolation and repressed desire can do to a confused woman.

Gevargizian’s story— the screenplay written by Gevargizian, Eric Havens, and Eric Stolze— centres on a hairdresser named Claire (Najarra Townsend), who’s a bit socially awkward. Claire’s desperate for a sense of family and friendship. So much so she’ll settle for being someone else with a whole other life entirely. No matter if that results in gruesome methods. When Claire meets a soon-to-be bride Olivia (Brea Grant), she feels she’s met someone to finally get close to, except nothing ever really seems to go the way she wants.

The Stylist is a unique horror that ratchets up to an expected yet terrifying conclusion. Claire’s a compelling character whose identity is torn. She at once wants to be Olivia and also wants to be with Olivia. The film illustrates how a woman can find herself torn between queer desire and the heteronormative traditions of society (i.e. traditional Judeo-Christian marriage), as well as how a clash between the two can lead to loss of identity and, ultimately, destruction.
Father Son Holy Gore - The Stylist - Olivia & ClaireClaire, prior to the plot’s events, seems to only kill people whose lives she’s jealous of and would like to figuratively live out via physical serial killer souvenirs. The first woman we see Claire kill is a mother and wife in town on business who’s cheating on her husband. We could assume Claire both wanted to be that woman with a family, and also felt the woman somehow violated the sanctity of family. With this in mind we can take a look into Claire’s motivation for killing Dawn (Sarah McGuire) at the coffee shop. At first, it seems odd for her to kill Dawn. No clear motivation, unlike the first woman. Perhaps it’s because Dawn appears as queer-coded, and maybe Claire resents her ability to be who she wants— Claire’s obviously repressing queer desire which reveals itself the more the film wears on. The most openly, albeit subtle, queer moment comes when Olivia asks Claire to help her get the wedding dress off. The camera lingers on Olivia’s naked back while Claire does, as well.

Some of the repressed queer desire in Claire surely comes out of her ideas about tradition. She’s concerned with family— or, in her case, a lack thereof— and has an obsession with marriage that, as we later learn, goes far beyond unhealthy. When she’s at Olivia’s wedding the only person she seems to connect with is a child, and has a surprisingly motherly way about her. Claire’s entirely preoccupied with the traditional heteronormative concept of life, in that she has a good job so all that’s left is to marry a man and start a family. Problem being, she’s so confused about what she wants it was always destined to result in something macabre.
Father Son Holy Gore - The Stylist - Claire in Bath

“But we all want what we don’t have”

Father Son Holy Gore - The Stylist - ScalpsBecause Claire feels she cannot be herself— her queer self whom she perceives as at odds with patriarchal society’s insistence on heteronorm marriage— she feels she needs to be someone else. This is perfectly embodied in her murders. She tries on the scalp and hair of another woman, literally slipping into somebody else’s skin for a few moments. She remarks early on in the film that being a hair stylist can feel like being someone’s therapist. This remark becomes a metaphor when Claire kills her victims and physically gets into their head by removing the scalp/hair, a metaphoric therapist with a pair of scissors for tools to open up patients’ heads instead of psychology.

My favourite part of Gevargizian’s film is the use of Gothic elements in relation to Claire’s queer desire. After she kills the queer-coded barista, Claire covers up her creepy vanity and nails the door shut to her Gothic cellar, hoping to physically bury her desire she sees as going against tradition. She tries to have a normal, friendly relationship with Olivia. But after Claire breaks into Olivia’s house, and specifically after she ends up using Olivia’s vibrator then nearly gets caught doing it, she goes back home and reopens the cellar, unearthing her desire once again, along with the confusion accompanying it. It all eventually leads to tragedy, culminating in a legitimately shocking moment.
Father Son Holy Gore - The Stylist - ScissorsI felt myself realising what was coming at the end. Gevargizian directs the screenplay she wrote with Havens and Stolze so well that even though I realised what was about to happen it still hit hard and nasty. I found myself with a gaping maw for a mouth as I watched the final minute or so, amazed at how the story got to that point. Najarra Townsend gives a chilling, engaging performance— one scene where she’s eating pizza after a vicious moment is darkly hilarious and totally skin crawling.

The Stylist presents a film that doesn’t villainise queerness like films such as Hide and Go Shriek or your beloved The Silence of the Lambs. Although I identify Claire as a queer character, who just so happens to commit murder, it isn’t queerness driving her to do what she does. It’s a patriarchal heteronormative society’s pressures upon her queerness pushing Claire to the confused homicidal state in which we find her at the beginning of the film. Essentially, there was never any hope for Claire’s story to end differently than it does, and though The Stylist isn’t nihilistic, it’s certainly void of any hope. Just the way I like it!

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