Published on June 21st, 2019 | by Jack O Higgins0
A haunted dress is the kind of premise that even Stephen King at the height of his cocaine period would struggle to make more than a short story out of, and a very silly one at that. But with In Fabric, Peter Strickland (The Duke of Burgundy, Berberian Sound Studio) uses the conceit to create a deeply sensual and deranged experience that wraps itself around your brain and refuses to let go.
As played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Shelia is a reserved and harried woman who yearns for some passion after separating from her husband. The day before a date, she’s convinced to buy a red dress in the winter sales of a department store. The sales assistant wears a black Victorian dress and speaks exclusively in phrases like “A purchase on the horizon, a panoply of temptation” or “A number is only a recreation of actuality.” Nobody bats an eyelid. This is Strickland gently warning you just how bugfuck nuts this film is about to get.
Once Shelia buys the dress, things start to go bump in the night. As far as horror movies go, it’s supremely low stakes – for a long time, the most high octane sequence involves a washing machine going on the blink – but it’s hypnotically rendered. Strickland and his cinematographer Ari Wegner give the dress a gorgeous highlight to emphasize how lush it is, and the whole film is bathed in vivid reds and greens straight out of one of those giallos the director clearly loves so much. It’s all bolstered by Cavern of Anti-Matter’s impeccable score, which alternates between droning psychological warfare and dreamy synth compositions.
Strangely Strickland rarely emphasizes the dress when it’s worn. In Fabric is a film that festishizes clothing and the retail experience but the people who fall for that promise still carry the same insecurities. Strickland tailors an obvious love of fashion (Burgundy made sure to credit the lingerie designers in its opening title sequence) with a wariness of consumerism.
But that seems like a pretty dull interpretation of a film whose show-stopping sequence depicts supernatural beings performing a bizarre sexual ritual on a mannequin that may or may not be human. And then there’s the scenes between Shelia and her moronic bosses, in which Strickland seems to be channeling Office Space. They’re hilarious for sure, but what place do they have in the larger narrative? And why do these bank managers have elaborate outfits hanging up in their office?
More than anything In Fabric reminded me of David Lynch’s Lost Highway, and not just because it seems to switch protagonist half way through. Strickland continues to pile on new ideas, images and characters like it’s the last chance he’ll get to make a film, and he takes great delight in mashing together disparate moments of horror and comedy. It makes for a perversely cryptic film, at least on first watch.
That’s fine though, because Strickland’s craft means that In Fabric is rarely anything less than totally enthralling. It’s a film defined by ephemeral sensations of desire and disappointment that will no doubt reveal its true nature on repeated viewings. An essential addition to the summer wardrobe. Jack O’Higgins
In Fabric is screening at Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast and the Irish Film Institute, Dublin from Friday 28th June.
Summary: Dir: Peter Strickland, 118 min, certificate 15