Strickland is a stylist who wears his influences on his exquisitely curse
embroidered sleeve. Whilst his homages to the stylistic influences of Italian
Giallo were successful in both Berberian Sound Studio (2012) and Duke
of Burgundy (2014) the tonal shifts of Strickland trying to create a
horror/comedy within In Fabric renders it his least successful film to
In Fabric is the story of a haunted dress that viciously maims and
eventually kills anyone unlucky enough to fall for its seductive charms; however,
the dress is simply a conceit for Strickland to concentrate his visual
pleasures on well-worn territory he explored with more aplomb via the fetishistic aspects of Duke
film is a bifurcated narrative with held together by the metaphor of a haunted
red dress that and what appears to be a criticism of classism in Britain –
however because Strickland is so concerned with style over substance it’s hard
to grasp exactly what he’s trying to achieve.
in 1993 the film follows the down-at-heart put upon single mother Sheila
(Marianne Jean-Baptiste, best known for her long standing role on the American
television series Without A Trace with Anthony LaPaglia) as she tries to
carve out time for herself whilst working as a bank teller and raising her self-centred
entitled son Vince (Jaygen Ayeh, The Souvenir, 2019). Scanning local
lonely-hearts columns for dates she is consistently disappointed by selfish men
who are not interested in real connection with her. She is also harangued by
her micromanaging and not-quite-right bosses Stash (Julian Barratt, A Field
In England, 2013) and Clive (Steve Oram, Tucked, 2018) at the bank
whose grinning bonhomie underlies their contempt for her as a worker. They only
show interest when she begins to relate her nightmares and domestic issues that
they would happily “role-play.”
television buzzes a strange static message showing advertisements from the
high-street department store Dently & Soper with uncanny creatures
beckoning her to the sales.
home she’s engaged in a war of wills with both her son and his aggressive older
Goth girlfriend Gwen (Gwendoline Christie, Star Wars EpisodeVII: The Last
Jedi, 2017) as well as indulging in some strangely voyeuristic behaviours
as she watches Gwen and Vince having sex.
is primed to be seduced and Dently & Soper find a reticent but willing
target for the cursed garment when she decides to treat herself to a new frock
so she can begin dating again in earnest.
& Soper is staffed by, well, it’s a Strickland film – so let’s assume
they’re witches or former mannequins that have been somehow transformed into
real women for the purpose of punishing the living. Strickland regular Romanian actor Fatima
Mohamed takes on the role of Miss Luckmoore, and impossibly groomed (and
bewigged) senior shop assistant who sadistically enjoys intimidating her
guides the hapless Sheila towards the red dress with prophetic promises that it
will entrance any man that she meets.
She proclaims the dress to be a size 36 yet when Sheila demurs saying
that it will be too small Luckmoore pronounces “The dimensions and properties transcend the prisms of
our measurements” – in short, it has some give.
The dress itself is metaphor laden –
blood red with a peacock feather motif at the waist. The point is belaboured,
clearly the dress is bad juju. As the film unfolds it becomes apparent that it
is also responsible for the death of the original catalogue model Jill (Sidse
Babett Knudsen in a non-speaking role). Not to worry according to Luckmoore,
the one-of-a-kind dress was thoroughly laundered after the model wore it for
the dress on a first disastrous date with the ironically named Adonis, Sheila
arrives home to find that she’s developed a rash and places the dress in the
washing machine. The washing machine literally goes into a spin and pulls
itself from the wall causing a path of destruction that also causes Sheila to
cut herself quite badly trying to keep the machine from destroying her humble
doesn’t give up on her quest for love however and meets the man who could
indeed become the love of her life Zach (Barry Adamson, best known as a
prolific musician from bands such as Magazine and Nick Cave and The Bad
Seeds). A tender relationship develops
between them. Zach is gentle, funny and doesn’t think Sheila is being hysterical
or unreasonable when she begins to suspect there is something distinctly wrong
with the dress that has caused her to be mauled by a dog when she was wearing
a scene that could be cribbed directly from Hitchcock, another British director
who styled fetishism and anxiety into an art form – Sheila is summarily
dispatched via catastrophic car accident via roadside mannequin as she drives
to a charity store to relieve herself of the dress which Dently & Soper
steadfastly refused to allow her to return to them.
dress survives where Sheila does not and is passed on to the next working-class
victim, washing machine repair man Reg Speaks (Leo Bill, Peterloo, 2018). In what appears to be a takedown of lad
culture Reg is forced into the frock to humiliate him at his bachelor’s party.
The dress, a size 36, fits him perfectly.
Laying in a pool of his own vomit he’s left by his pissing drunk
workmates and soon to be in-laws.
is marrying the bullying and chavvy Babs (Hayley Squires, I, Daniel Blake,
2016). Babs is selfish and humiliates Reg. However, as the film progresses it
becomes clear that humiliation is something Reg craves – just as he secretly
lusts for the opportunity to wear women’s clothing and be treated as a
mannequin – a fantasy that harkens back to some Oedipal moment in his
also holds the power of incantation. Just as Sheila speaking the numbers of her
phone in her answering machine and to Miss Luckmoore, when Reg speaks (get it?)
about fixing washing machines he can bewitch people to an almost orgasmic peak.
tries on the cursed dress and wonders aloud how it could fit him and fit her.
The overly berated Reg barely hears her as her chatter is non-stop even during
moments of intimacy.
seeks to wash the cursed dress and breaks his own machine. Because of strict
labour laws he is chastised by his boss for breaking union rules and is
dismissed from his job. A consequence of which is that he is found in the back
room of the bank where Sheila worked speaking to Sheila’s previous bosses Stash
and Clive as they encourage him to describe exactly what went wrong with the
washing machine for their own sexual pleasure.
It’s interesting to note that the staff meeting office at the bank more
resembles a department store back room filled with exotic clothing than any
legitimate bank. Or, at least it would
be interesting if Strickland hadn’t already played all the metaphors to the
point of audience exhaustion.
dénouement of the film occurs when Babs forces her way into Dently & Soper
to buy something classy. Luckmoore refuses to serve Babs out of snobbery (the
store has standards that Babs the chav clearly does not meet. Babs insists on
trying on a dress anyway and makes her way to the changing rooms.
is unleashed when one woman seems to skip the queue over another. It’s a long-held joke that the British are
sticklers for common courtesy and queue jumping is an almost unforgivable
exclusively female clientele riot causing the store to catch on fire with Babs
trapped inside a dressing room. Meanwhile at home Reg has also lost his life to
Dently & Soper burns Miss Luckmoore grabs one of her anointed mannequins
and descends down Dantesque levels in a dumbwaiter. As she descends, we see Jill, Sheila, Reg and
Babs all endlessly stitching identical red dresses. Trapped eternally to
recreate the curse.
main problem with the film is that by the time the audience has reached the finale
they’ve ceased to care. Without characters to anchor the fractured narrative
Strickland’s work becomes all style and no substance. It’s a film that has no discernible thesis
except to prove Strickland likes other and superior director’s works and is
friends with some excellent graphic designers and very cool musicians. The
soundtrack is provided by Cavern of Anti-Matter made up of two members of
Stereolab. As with Berberian Sound Studio and Duke of Burgundy
the choices Strickland made in who created the score Broadcast in the former
and Cat’s Eyes in the latter speak to his interest in music as a part of his synesthetic
approach to film making.
Australian cinematographer Ari Wegner (Lady Macbeth, 2016) does her best to
realise Strickland’s disjointed vision. She creates some unforgettable visuals,
especially as she captures the actors in multiple reflections and uses
effectively the slowing and speeding up of time in the film. However, some of the shots are so clearly
digitally enhanced that they are distracting.
It’s hard to tell if Strickland intended to deliberately reference Lynch
and Hitchcock in the scenes where Sheila is driving her car on a dark highway.
unsurprising that one of the executive producers of the film is Ben Wheatley.
He too is a director with a very specific vision, and the interplay between
Strickland and Wheatley is strong. In
his most recent film Happy New Year, Colin Burstead the poster for Duke
of Burgundy appears in the bedroom of one of the characters.
I suspect In Fabric will divide reviewers in a way that Strickland’s previous works did not. For some it will be a ineluctable and delicious puzzle, for others like myself it will remind me that he’s capable of far superior work; and perhaps should concentrate on creating a vision that harkens back to his first film Katalin Varga (2009) which did not rely on referencing so many visual tropes that he has already explored. There are only so many times one can explore the fetish via Argento, Franco and co., without it becoming somewhat fatigued.
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