By Peg Aloi
In Fabric, directed by Peter Strickland. Screening at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, MA, January 3 through 9
In Fabric is a mesh of black comedy, horror, and art-house psychedelia. I found it wildly original.
Why do women buy dresses? To feel more attractive? To look more polished and professional? For a special occasion? Or maybe just because they’re on sale, and you know, women love a bargain almost as much as they love to shop. These questions and many more of a slightly more existential bent, are at the heart of In Fabric, a strange, alluring, and rather disturbing new film from Peter Strickland. This is Strickland’s second film executive produced by Ben Wheatley (the first was the lush, erotic The Duke of Burgundy), and if you’re a Wheatley fan, as I am, that alone might pique your interest. Strickland’s previous films (which also include the disturbing, intense Berberian Sound Studio) have shown this filmmaker to be something of a weird visionary, an accomplished maker of eclectic, culturally evocative texts. In Fabric is a mesh of black comedy, horror, and art-house psychedelia. I found it wildly original.
The film begins with a startling sound of scissors as they cut the tape on a box containing a red dress, with a tag attached that reads “sale.” There follows a short montage of still shots that shows a crowd gathering at the doors of a department store, followed by various arresting still images selected from later in the film. The horror content is served up early, accompanied by the pulsating score from Cavern of Anti-Matter, music that is reminiscent of Goblin’s tinkling accompaniment to Argento’s Suspiria. Indeed there is a very giallo sensibility at work here, with bright dreamy colors, shadowy lighting, and a tendency toward sudden action and shocking, visceral visuals. Not to mention witchy women whispering.
The montage plays through a long sequence of credits (another ode to vintage ’70s horror films). Voices of people in a crowd become louder, as we see images of people scurrying into various shops. The images shift from color to grainy black-and-white. Then comes a newspaper headline: “Sales Get Off to a Flying Start.” Next, we zoom in on an old-fashioned personal ad, for a woman seeking “a tender, reliable gent for laughter and long walks.”
Then we meet Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste, seen recently in the series Broadchurch and Blindspot and familiar to American audiences from her work in Without a Trace). She works as a bank teller and is recently separated from her husband. Her son is in his 20s and still lives at home; he has recently started seeing a woman who’s a few years older. Her son’s dismissive attitude and his girlfriend’s slatternly ways grate on Sheila. She decides to start dating again and, for that, she needs a new dress.
Her excursion to the department store, which plays the role of a secondary location throughout the film, is odd yet somehow conventional. The women who run the dress department wear Victorian-inspired frocks, bright red lips and nails, and dramatic upswept hairdos. One of them, a regal woman named Miss Luckmoore (an inscrutable performance by Fatma Mohamed), hovers around Sheila as she picks out a red dress, which can also be seen in the store’s thick catalog. Its color is “Red Artery.” Other items come in shades of “asphodel” and “cinnamon,” mocking how fashion marketing weaves a precious sense of romance around its wares. The catalog’s wording and photos look as if they had been written 40 years ago. The aesthetics of the shop are decidedly retro, a strange mix of the naturalistic and stylized, a mix-and-match that weaves a profoundly eerie sense of place. What’s more, the employees behave and speak strangely. Miss Luckmoore coaxes Sheila into buying the red dress, asking rather personal questions and saying cryptic things like “Daring has eclipsed the dark circumference of caution.”
Sheila goes on a first date with a rather rude and unappealing man, and the next day she notices the red dress has given her a rash. When she tries to wash it, her washing machine malfunctions and injures her and her son. Things become increasingly strange at work. Her two managers (played by Wheatley denizens Steve Oram and Julian Barratt) request meetings and lecture her about seemingly picayunish behavioral lapses (such as bathroom breaks that last longer than two minutes). The film’s target appears to be how we fetishize the machinations that drive working and shopping, including the insidiously demeaning propaganda that lurks in advertisements and work manuals.
Sheila later meets a much more appealing beau, and while the two are out on one of those long walks, she is attacked by a dog, who tears at the red dress beneath her coat and bites her arm. Shaken by the incident, Sheila is also puzzled when the dress shows no sign of damage. She decides to return it, and we witness more of the macabre goings on beneath the placid surface exterior of the dress shop. The dress appears to have had a haunted past. But why it causes so much difficulty for Sheila is unclear.
The dress eventually finds it way to a new owner: a man who works repairing washing machines. He’s soon to be married, and his fiancé decides to try out the dress. Nefariousness ensues. Things at the dress shop go awry, setting up a kaleidoscopic climax that unravels, to some extent, the alarming origins of the dress. But the symbolic inferences that slither beneath Strickland’s surfaces seem secondary to the imagery itself, composed painstakingly of the familiar worlds of retail, commerce, and workday life, shot through with intricate slices of horror to keep us on our toes. In Fabric is a deliriously odd movie — stylish and unpredictable — full of insinuations about what women want, what they’re being sold, and what they’re ultimately forced to bear.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, The Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.