In Fabric (Peter Strickland, 2018) – Chattanooga Film Festival 2019

FIRST FLOOR: WOMEN’S FASHION, ACCESSORIES, TERROR

Writer-director Peter Strickland’s latest effort is his most demented vision to date, a bizarrely terrifying combination of Suspiria and Phantom Thread that is awash in blood (and other bodily fluids). Set in the world of 1970s fashion, In Fabric is a psychosexual phantasmagoria initiated by a murderous dress that is sold by an unusual department store and the hypnotic coven that runs it. Recently divorced bank clerk Sheila is the garment’s first victim, completely unaware that her purchase at Dentley & Soper’s will unleash the frock’s curse and set in motion an absurdly brutal chain of fashion related brutality.

With In Fabric, Peter Strickland blends Italian supernatural horror and Europudding erotica with corporate micromanagement and baroque customer service-speak, producing an incisive parody of consumer culture that still manages to feel legitimately unsettling and truly terrifying. In Fabric is a must sees for surreal fashion addicts and kinky horror fans alike!

Special Edition Comments:

FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by horror film journalist Mark Kermode and excerpts from the Dentley & Soper store catalogue

There is an aspect of eccentricity that is essential to Peter Strickland’s previous works, the foley artist driven mad by his own melon-stabbing assignment in Berberian Sound Studio (2012) and the intricately mundane power-struggles of a same-sex D/s relationship in The Duke of Burgundy (2014), however the writer-director seems to enjoy a new level amusement in his latest effort, In Fabric. The film opens with a tease, a female hand flicking open a switchblade to open a box and reveal a blood-red dress, then it launches into an audacious opening credit sequence featuring freeze-frames taken from the entire film. Were In Fabric another movie, you might accuse Strickland of spoiling his own story. Thankfully, little can prepare you for the film’s unique blend of absurdist horror and consumerist cheek.

In Fabric initially concerns Sheila Wallchapel (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a divorced bank clerk suffering through the company of her ungrateful son Vince (Jaygann Ayeh), his disrespectful girlfriend Gwen (Gwendoline Christie), and Sheila’s sympathetically passive-aggressive managers Clive and Stash (comedians Steve Oram and Julian Barratt). Ready to re-enter the dating scene and answer some Lonely Hearts ads, Sheila visits the otherworldly department store Dentley & Soper’s for a hot deal on a hotter dress. With the help of Miss Luckmoore (Strickland regular Fatma Mohamed dressed in black Victoriana and using excessively florid sales-speak), Sheila takes home an “artery red” dress that perfectly fits her despite it being the incorrect size. The dress has a mind its own however, crawling across floors and floating in midair as it stalks Sheila, Vince, and Gwen throughout their home. As In Fabric proceeds, the garment leaves nasty burns on Sheila’s skin, destroys washing machines, starts fires, and even inspires animal attacks and car crashes. Midway through, Strickland’s film takes an unexpected turn, introducing Reg and his fiancé Babs as further victims of the killer frock and further revealing in vague terms the malevolent schemes of the coven that operates Dentley & Soper’s.

Despite the admittedly silly concept of an evil dress and the witchy clothing store that sold it, Strickland still manages to load In Fabric with real dread. Many critics are quick to cite the film as giallo-inspired, but I’ll be fussy and state clearly that In Fabric is no giallo. Strickland’s plot involves no murder mystery and the movie has no black-gloved killer. In Fabric is a tale of the supernatural that clearly nods at Dario Argento’s Three Mothers (sorry, not giallo) and not to his Animal Trilogy (yes, giallo). Dentley & Soper’s retail coven, led by eerie proprietor Mr. Lundy (Richard Bremmer), is the barycentre to the film’s seriocomic horrors, setting an unusual tone that evokes David Cronenberg and Lost Highway (David Lynch, 1997) as well as Dark Shadows and Office Space (Mike Judge, 1999). Strickland cites inspiration from a wide array of sources, from Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962) to Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s The Office, from early Swans gigs to Edward Kienholz’s mannequin sculptures, however two influences stand-out: Strickland’s recently discovered ASMR sensitivity and the out-of-time character of department stores.

Aware of Peter Strickland’s taste for musicians like Robert Ashley, Alvin Lucier, Éliane Radigue, Costin Miereanu, and Nurse With Wound, radio producer Russell Finch introduced the director to the phenomena of autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR), a tingling sensation on the skin induced by external stimuli such as binaural recordings. Strickland’s sensitivity to the phenomena is retroactively invoked by him to explain some of his cinematic “kinks” like his propensity for whispering. Looking forward, the director calls In Fabric “basically an extended ASMR video.” The film’s otherworldly score is performed by synth artist Cavern of Anti-Matter, an evocative alias for Stereolab’s Tim Gane, however Strickland seems to prize the sonic texture of his dialogue even more than its music. Late in In Fabric, the movie introduces the running gag of appliance repairman Reg’s bliss-inducing technical-speak where he seems to fall into a droning trance while explaining the intricacies of washing machine mechanics, thereby causing his audience to melt into post-orgasmic contentment at the sound of his description. The absurd situation is played for the biggest laughs through Clive and Stash who seek out the effect with a kind of ironic reversal of their own weaponized sensitivity training, a tone of concern and empathy that instead inspires paranoia with criticisms over the timing of bathroom breaks and the meaningfulness of handshakes.

Perhaps nowhere is Strickland’s tendencies for ASMR felt more strongly than within the walls of Dentley & Soper’s and through the extravagant and heavily-accented attentiveness of Miss Luckmoore. In hushed tones, the store clerk reads some wonderfully loopy lines about customer satisfaction (“Did the transaction validate your paradigm of consumerism?”), sizing and fit (“Dimensions and proportions transcend the prisms of our measurements.”), and buyer’s remorse (“A purchase on the horizon, a panoply of temptation, the hesitation in your voice, soon to be an echo in the recesses of the spheres of retail.”). The dialogue feels as anachronistic as the store’s dumbwaiter and pneumatic tubes and as preposterous as the attendants’ casque noir wigs and funereal finery. Strickland has commented on department stores always feeling out time and therefore perfectly situated to operate in a state of waking dream (a notion nodded to by the film’s recurring phrase – “a sleeping dream” – which oddly presumes the waking variety). While the filmmaker specifically set the movie in 1993, many critics and viewers sense Strickland’s out-of-time aims, locating the film as being set in the 1980s or even the 1970s. Strickland is obviously enjoying himself as he confuses In Fabric‘s margins and his embrace of nightmare logic only allows for his indulgences all the more. When Reg guts a squash in the kitchen or Sidse Babett Knudsen appears as the dress’s tragically killed catalogue model, Strickland’s self-reflexive shout-outs can’t be missed, seeming to wink at his fans and encouraging them to get in on In Fabric‘s unusual joke.

Strickland has expressed caution about the capitalist critique woven into his latest feature. Certainly In Fabric presents its consumerist culture as something induced like hypnosis or cast like a spell, conjured by Lundy, Luckmoore, and the other Dentley & Soper attendants as they beckon waiting shoppers with waving arms or pleasure a shop mannequin to a climax of bodily fluids. And Strickland offers a very Twilight Zone-ish conclusion, suggesting that our retail desires are a dead-end that trap us in the same commercial enterprise. Yet, to his mind, Strickland keeps such analyses at arm’s reach, remarking, “I’d feel like a hypocrite because I’m sure I’m wearing something that’s made in a sweatshop. Our Smartphones, there’s child exploitation. I don’t want to be a dickhead.” For In Fabric, the dress is the main character as early drafts numbered the dress’s victims at six and approached its story much more as an anthology (truncated in the final product for financial reasons). As told by Strickland:

It’s a satirical backdrop to the film. I would buy five dresses if I was Sheila. The very important thing is that she needs that dress. She needs to escape. What’s really important in the dress is that we’re not judging Sheila, it’s a random death, like cancer.

If I’m making them consumerist and the dress is judging them, it loses its power because it becomes logical and it’s not so scary. So the thing was to give Sheila some dignity.

With all good deference to the film’s writer-director, two things can be true. While the dress and its violence does seem random, simply imposing itself on whomever it comes into contact with, its brutality exists in a broader, equally unsettling capitalist context. The dress is but one part of a larger enterprise, one of maleficent witches and unnervingly needling middle-managers, both of whom speak carefully and sensitively while still manipulating the exploitation of their audiences. Theirs is a kind of new dominance couched in terms of choice and care but still in service of an impassive and unmoved authority. The dress does not judge because there is no choice. There is no escape from consumption; only a single path that periodically crushes those that find themselves upon it, dignified or not. In Fabric offers a dream that cannot be woken from and a store that cannot be exited.

In Fabric already has distribution in the UK by Curzon Artificial Eye and in the US by A24, so an Arrow Video release seems unlikely. Still, MMC! loves Peter Strickland’s output and an Arrow Video edition would likely set a new standard of insight on the filmmaker’s work. In Fabric‘s killer dress has stitched into its lining the phrase “You who will wear me will know me” and that is precisely what MMC! wants in a hard media release of this film (less the burns, dog attacks, and other traumas of course). For those with superb film tastes and unable to wait for a stacked home media edition, In Fabric should hit theatres in late June!

Credits: Big thanks once again to the Chattanooga Film Festival for including In Fabric as part of its 2019 program. This imagined edition mirrors the special features offered in past releases of Strickland films. To that, I’ve added a trio of music videos directed by Strickland since the release of The Duke of Burgundy and have commissioned an essay by British film critic and Peter Strickland-booster Mark Kermode. The cover summary leans heavily on Peter Kulpowsky’s synopsis for TIFF.

This post owes thanks to various sources including Keith Uhlich’s review for The Hollywood Reporter, Peter Debruge’s review for Variety, David Ehrlich’s review for IndieWire, Justin Chang’s review for The Los Angeles Times, Stephen Whitty’s review for Screen Daily, Abbey Bender’s review for the BFI, Chris Evangelista’s review for /Film, Dana Schwartz’s review for Entertainment Weekly, Sezín Koehler’s review for Black Girl Nerds, Samm Deighan’s conversation with Peter Strickland for Diabolique Magazine, Amber Wilkinson’s discussion for Eye for Film, and Lara C. Cory’s interview for Wire.

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