Peter 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 date.
Ostensibly 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 of Burgundy.
The 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.
Set 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.”
Sheila’s television buzzes a strange static message showing advertisements from the high-street department store Dently & Soper with uncanny creatures beckoning her to the sales.
At 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.
Sheila 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.
Dently & 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 clientele.
Luckmoore 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 shoot.
Wearing 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 laundry.
Shelia 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 it.
In 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.
The 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.
Reg 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 childhood.
Reg 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.
Babs 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.
Reg 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.
The 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.
Havoc 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 social gaffe.
The 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 the curse.
As 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.
The 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.
Acclaimed 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.
It’s 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.
Director: Peter Strickland
Cast: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Julian Barratt
Writer: Peter Strickland