UK (2018) Dir. Peter Strickland
Many women spend their lives looking for that perfect dress, preferably within their budget, which will make them look great and knock ’em dead – that is referring to the people who see them in this spectacular gown. This would require a “killer” dress to be found, though not literally a dress that kills, that would be quite horrifying, right?
Sheila Woodchapel (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is a recently divorced bank clerk looking to get back into the dating game after learning from her teenage son Vince (Jaygann Ayeh) his father already has a new girlfriend. After securing a date through a lonely hearts ad, Shelia visits the sales at Dentley and Soper department store, where she is introduced to an enchanting red dress by enigmatic sales assistant Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed).
The date isn’t a success but Sheila still likes the dress, although she notices a strange rash on her chest from wearing it, as well as it mysteriously cropping up in other rooms in the house it shouldn’t be in. Eventually, she meets Zach (Barry Adamson) and things seem to go well but every time Sheila wears the dress or tries to wash it, she ends up injured or something destructive happens. Coincidence?
If you were to cut open British director Peter Strickland’s head and look inside you’d probably find a black brain with a seething mass of psychedelic coloured imps dancing around it, reeling of mystical incantations of mumbo jumbo. How else do you explain the man who makes esoterically challenging films like In Fabric with the same ease Disney makes family friendly cartoons?
Cinema is full of idiosyncratic auteurs and probably for the better but usually one can at least find something about them in order to explain their work to others. Strickland however, is one of those filmmakers who seem to defy categorisation whilst somehow managing to have created a style that is distinctly his, at least in his English language films, only his debut Katalin Varga remains separate from the others in this way.
Essentially, In Fabric is a quirky black comedy-horror film about a cursed red dress but of course isn’t quite that straightforward. For a start, Strickland almost gives way many of the film’s plot points during the spoilerish open credits sequence, comprised of still images of what it so come, yet these don’t tell the whole story. This would be the giallo influence, something he paid tribute to in his second film Berberian Sound Studio.
One major misdirection that can’t be avoided is the audience being led to believe Sheila is the main protagonist of the story, when in fact she is the first on screen victim if you will of the dress. Her story arc is quite unremarkable at first, but then we meet Vince’s girlfriend Gwen (Gwendoline Christie), an older surly, towering woman prone to taking advantage of Sheila, and we realise thing aren’t so easy to read after all.
Much more happens that is a mixture of silliness – Sheila’s gay bosses at the bank, Stash (Julian Barratt) and Clive (Steve Oram), passively admonish her for having an insincere handshake and for inappropriately waving at their superior’s mistress – and creepiness – the dress floats about the house of its own accord. It is necessary to point out it ends with Sheila given the dress to a charity shop as hat is where the next story begins.
A meek, nerdy washing machine engineer Reg Speaks (Leo Bill) is about to marry the aggressive Babs (Hayley Squires) so his work mates hold a stag do for him, where Reg ends up wearing a familiar dress picked up from a charity shop. From then on, nothing seems to go right for Reg or Babs, both of them wearing the dress and both heading for a fated demise.
There is noticeably more comedy in the Reg and Babs segment, most of it seeming detached for the curse of the dress, such as Reg failing to be seduced by vampy female customer and another surreal appearance from Stash and Clive. The funniest bit is Reg’s ability to drive people into stupor when he gets going with the technical talk on the faults of a washing machine, Babs’ reaction being priceless.
Holding everything together like invisible stitching is the department store and its rather odd staff. Along with Miss Luckmoore, there is elderly male assistant Mr. Lundy (Richard Bremmer), who gets off on watching an anatomically accurate mannequin being washed down. They all speak in a loquacious if archaic manner that is wonderfully lyrical but often gibberish but suits their gothic appearance.
Strickland never reveals the truth behind the dress, the shop, or anything else but waits until the closing frames to add that one last horrific stab to the guts that evil is at work and has no intentions of being stopped. Yes, it may just be a dress but who would ever suspect a simple piece of sewn fabric could cause so much havoc?
It is possible Strickland is also passing comment on consumerism and either the vanity of people who demand the best and are fooled by cynicism of retail promotions, or the thrifty who live for bargains thus get what they pay for. It is also possible I am wrong, such is the density of the allusion presented here, but this is no spooky story for the sake of it.
Everything is exquisitely shot, tailor made for HD, and whether you understood it all, the visuals at least are mercurial enough to enchant and impress with such profundity, their poetry is palpable. We can argue over who delivers the best performance, with my money on Fatma Mohamed, whose Miss Luckmoore is a wonderful creation beautifully brought to life.
Definitely not for everyone, In Fabric will likely confound and confuse audiences as much as it delights others whilst its visual delights are true art, cementing Strickland as one the most daring and individual voices in British cinema today.