A well-worn turn of phrase to begin: No one makes movies like Peter Strickland. That’s not to say the British writer-director behind the suggestive Roma revenge thriller Katalin Varga (2009), the aurally fixated horror film Berberian Sound Studio (2012), and the ethereal S&M romance The Duke of Burgundy (2014) is somehow outside or above influence. His love of hot-blooded giallo and Europudding erotica is almost always evident (Berberian even took place behind the scenes of a sleazy Italian slasher). But he somehow manages to transform and transcend what, in many hands, would feel unoriginal and derivative.
Speaking of hands, the first thing we see in Strickland’s latest, In Fabric, is a woman’s soft, sensuous mitt flicking open a switchblade. Sex and death in an image, though the knife, in this case, is cutting open a box that contains a much more lethal weapon — a devil-red dress that proves to be possessed and hungry for blood. How do you make a frock into a fearsome antagonist? First by embracing the silliness of the notion while simultaneously treating it with unrepentant reverence. This gown slinks, slides and hovers around the frame with a cheeky absurdity (you can almost see the grips offscreen pulling the literal strings) that is frequently sublime. Terror emerges from laughter, from the very disbelief in what you’re witnessing.
Yet the conceit (killer couture!) is only as good as its context, and this is where In Fabric excels. For the first hour, Strickland tricks viewers into thinking they’re watching a single story of divorcee Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), whose emotional vulnerability leads her to purchase the cursed piece of clothing during a sale at a local department store. There’s plenty of oddball doodling in the margins during this section: The chatty clerk who sells Sheila the dress is played by Strickland regular Fatma Mohamed, who speaks in hilariously florid similes and metaphors made all the funnier by her thickly accented English. It’s as if a cerebral porn film could break out at any moment.
Meanwhile, a commercial for the store — with its sinister cadre of beckoning employees and some very 1980s (when the story is ostensibly set) graphics and music — is creepy kin to the earworm Silver Shamrock ad from Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982). And Game of Thrones‘ Gwendoline Christie pops up — under a dark mop of hair, with attitude tuned well past Queen Bitch — as a perpetual thorn in Sheila’s side. (Her character, appropriately named Gwen, is dating Sheila’s son and smugly rubs the sexual satisfaction she feels in the older woman’s face.)
But mostly we watch as Sheila lashes out, in subtle, often devastating ways, at the bum hand she’s been dealt: irritable/irritating offspring, a date that goes south very quickly, a pair of bosses (Steve Oram and Julian Barratt) who micromanage her every move with concern-troll condescension. Strickland keeps things methodical, perhaps to a fault; occasionally he comes close to losing the mesmeric thread because Sheila’s travails don’t seem substantial enough to sustain a two-hour feature. But just as life appears to be looking up, the dress works its infernal power, and much more than the narrative gets fractured.
In hindsight, the turn In Fabric suddenly takes — toward gleefully anti-capitalist giallo — is very clearly planned for. There’s the bit of lore, teased a few times throughout, about a catalog model (Sidse Babett Knudsen) who met a violent end after wearing the jinxed garment. And there’s also the bizarre ritual we witness in which Mohamed’s character and several of her co-workers masturbate (until it bleeds!) a not-so-inanimate-as-it-seems store mannequin. Surely this is the first film to ever include an end-credits citation for the creators of “mannequin pubic hair.” (Then again…)
The second half of In Fabric goes to some full-bore bizarre places that are best experienced fresh, though they can still be obliquely summed up as “the erotic possibilities of washing machine repair lingo.” Head spinning a bit, and not unpleasantly? That’s what Strickland, as with any artist who speaks in their own enthralling private language, can do.
Production Companies: Rook Films Ltd, BBC Films, BFI, Headgear Films
Cast: Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Hayley Squires, Leo Bill, Julian Barrett, Steve Oram, Gwendoline Christie
Director: Peter Strickland
Screenplay: Peter Strickland
Executive producers: Lizzie Francke, Phil Hunt, Rose Garnett, Hilary Davis, Stephen Kelliher, Compton Ross, Ben Wheatley, Ian Benson
Producer: Andy Starke
Cinematography: Ari Wegner
Editor: Matyas Fekete
Music: Cavern of Anti-Matter
Production designer: Paki Smith
Sound: Martin Pavey
U.S. and international sales: Bankside Films
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Midnight Madness)