Director: Peter Strickland
Stars: Fatma Mohamed, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Hayley Squires
The sinister manipulations of inanimate objects have long antagonised our cinema screens, as horror filmmakers try to wring out truths about our obsessions with commodities. With things. This decade kicked off with an absurdist entry in the genre, as Quentin Dupieux used the prospect of a killer tyre to get surreal with Rubber. Now the decade closes out (near enough) with Peter Strickland’s equally comic tale of a cursed dress.
Having toured Europe with Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke Of Burgundy, Strickland returns to Blighty and the ridiculously-named borough of Thames Valley On Thames. It’s the early 80’s and an “artery red” dress – a one-of-a-kind – is snapped up by Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) as she prepares for a blind date. Sold to her by the delectably loquacious Miss Luckmore (Strickland regular Fatima Mohamed), the dress has a chequered history; the model who wore it died. And so Sheila finds herself frequently in peril once she becomes the item’s owner.
Strickland’s film has the feel of an anthology piece, though contains only two stories, interlinked by that damned and seemingly impervious piece of fashion. As a director he favours the slow-burn, and so we get to know those he places in harm’s way. There’s a superbly squirmy kitchen-sink drama happening at home for Sheila, where her teenage son Vince (Jaygann Ayeh) is explicitly embarking on a sexual relationship with an older woman (Gwendoline Christie). Elsewhere, comic talents Steve Oram and Julian Barratt make for a dependably amusing double act as Sheila’s superiors at the bank.
The concept of In Fabric pries lightly at the idea that our consumerism will be our own downfall, but it is largely an apolitical film, instead relishing in a quite specific strand of off-beat humour. As in The Duke Of Burgundy, Strickland delights in ridiculing social trends by inventing his own. Here he fantasises a world in which washing machine repair is embroiled with eroticism and where bank managers double as dream psychologists. The quirky fascination with showroom dummies that feathered the peripheries of The Duke Of Burgundy is brought to the fore here; his fictional department store Dentley & Soper’s is the perfect venue. A mid-film vignette is heady with menstrual potency, and may be the most ludicrous item in this director’s repertoire to date.
The exceptional score by Cavern of Anti-Matter goes to town on Strickland’s aesthetic flourishes (again his fondness for the colour red suggests Italian filmmakers like Argento, Fulci and Bava) but In Fabric is no giallo rip-off. If a modern twist on that genre is what you’re after I’d point you toward the work of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani (Amer, The Strange Colour Of Your Body’s Tears). Instead, In Fabric trades in a similar vein of warped nostalgia found in the cult BBC series Look Around You.
As a film about objects, Strickland is engrossed in decidedly British paraphernalia of the early 80’s. As such he ogles rotary telephones, clothing catalogues and the board game Sorry! He fondly recalls the garish reception of old televisions and the slowness of a world without the internet. This last captured in the dawdling method of making a transaction at Dentley & Soper’s as much as in the rituals of Sheila’s forays among the personal ads in the paper. This director’s love for the recently obsolete knows no bounds.
Strange, then, that his films feel so very now. And kudos to UK production outfit Rook Films for putting money into a project as wantonly odd as this one. In Fabric is tailored to be a cult film. It won’t make money. But its existence – as with the rest of Strickland’s precious and particular oeuvre – makes the world a more interesting place.
In Fabric lacks the bruised heart and human complexity of The Duke Of Burgundy – and as such feels like a lesser film – but then one senses that the aim here is very different. In a way this is Strickland’s most straight-forward and entertaining work so far. It’s a daydream that began by wondering who owned the charity shop purchase you made before you bought it. Who lived in it? Who loved in it? Who died in it…? Films have bloomed from far less imaginative places.
And, if for no other reason, you deserve the opportunity to treat yourself to this film’s barmy way with dialogue, from how Miss Luckmore addresses “the hesitation in your voice” as “soon to be an echo in the spheres of retail” to how Hayley Squires’ character Babs disdainfully refers to her hungover fiancée’s bedroom as “a chamber of booze and methane”.