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There are ‘unique’ directors, and then there’s Peter Strickland. The Berkshire-born auteur is nothing if not a one-of-a-kind filmmaker. His brilliant breakout Berberian Sound Studio turned the production of a giallo horror into its own psychological nightmare, with Toby Jones’ audio engineer slipping into madness thanks to Sisyphean journey of misogyny and a very literal, ‘tortuous’ recording process. 2014’s The Duke of Burgundy was even more devilishly idiosyncratic. An anti-rom-com of sorts, it centred around a fractious, sadomasochistic relationship between two women living in a bizarre matriarchal society seemingly obsessed with lepidopterology—the study of moths.
It really is saying something then, that In Fabric is Strickland at his most Strickland. The plot might be something you’d see scribbled on the wall of a padded cell if it wasn’t for the director’s ability to ground the distressingly offbeat with the more humdrum aspects of mid-20th century life. So what exactly are we dealing with this time round? The main character is a haunted dress which carries out sinister machinations on its wearers in order to satisfy an upmarket, department store run by a coven of dolled-up attendants. And with that, we can finally say there is something there for everyone.
The closest thing to a central human protagonist comes in the form of single mother Sheila, played by Secrets and Lies standout Marianne Jean-Baptiste. Shelia lives with her son Vince, and practically lives with Vince’s ever-present girlfriend of undeterminable age Gwen. Game of Thrones alum Gwendoline Christine is terrific as the latter, a sultry nuisance whose sexuality is so virulent it almost acts as provocation to a lonely Sheila in a middle-age dry spell. It’s after the aforementioned red dress is bought for a comically mismatched date do the expected alarming and unexplained events begin to transpire.
This being a Strickland venture, it is of course drenched in 70’s kitsch. One would argue that this would be the decade the film is set if one were able to make a reasonable argument these films were set anywhere near our universe. Few directors, however, can realise such a fully formed world on such a modest budget. In Fabric’s most unsettling aspect might just be it’s “uncanny valley” of a reality, something that feels all the more alien because of the quotidian drab elements we recognize. The queasy, boutique catalogues, modestly dressed models and dodgy upholstery only seem to make this society more disconnected from our own as opposed to more familiar.
This is not to suggest that In Fabric looks in any way boring. Strickland and cinematographer Ari Wegner present us with beautifully garish scenes and clever updates of giallo cinema staples. Colours—especially the reds—pop like the covers of the pulpy paperbacks that inspired these kinds of stories. Wegner contrasts the vibrancy of some hues with muted tones of the period-appropriate décor to offer up a lucid, hyper-real nightmare.
One thing that does separate this work from previous director outings is the humour. Strickland has always been aware of the innate, absurdist comedy in his films. But here it’s seems that much more front and centre. Julian Barratt and Steve Oram’s hilarious double act as Sheila’s nano-managing superiors being the most obvious example. They nail the patronising grins of a boss whose “just trying to look out for you” before giving her a pamphlet on how to improve her handshake. It would be something straight out of Office Space were it not so Kafkaesque.
Sidse Babett Knudsen, who worked previously with Strickland on The Duke of Burgundy, has a lot of fun as the sensual sorceress/store attendant here. She can deliver lines like “the hesitation in your voice is soon to be an echo in the recesses of the spheres of retail” and somehow make it both scarily authoritative and absolutely ridiculous at the same time. The dialogue styles, whether it be naturalistic or deliberately stilted melodrama, are varied so as to never allow us to be firmly rooted in this world. You may call me crazy for arguing a film where an old man masturbates to a menstruating mannequin could ever be considered a “laugh riot”. But sometimes the murderous, scarlet gown just fits.
In Fabric does make some frustrating narrative choices. The decision to switch protagonists at around the half-way point is probably the wrong one. Suddenly the story feels like it’s starting all over again. Plus, an already generous two-hour run-time is made harder to excuse with a plot that’s about as thin as the mannequins everywhere. A final reveal, too, is material usually reserved for a mid-tier episode of Tales of the Unexpected.
But In Fabric is—sometimes literally—more about style than anything else and hey, what style. I can almost guarantee you that there will be no other film like it released in 2019. So what’s it all about? The dangerous depths society goes to when it represses it’s darkest sexual desires? The scourges of blood-sucking consumerism? All of the above, probably. All I know is that’s it’s a hypnotic, eldritch fantasy that marries Lynch and Argento and comes up Strickland.