One of the most visually and aurally accomplished filmmakers currently working, writer/director Peter Strickland has thus far enjoyed considerable critical acclaim and some limited arthouse, but has been unable to make much of a mainstream impact. Not that he seems remotely bothered by this, as his latest, In Fabric, is easily the most impenetrable work in his oeuvre. Although he definitely flirts with embracing the transformative power of fine clothing, he is far more interested in mocking some of the more crass elements of consumerism, particularly the pernicious lure of "the bargain", and the herd mentality manufactured, maintained, and exploited by retail corporations during Black Friday (an event that if witnessed by aliens would surely lead to them judging us too intellectually rudimentary to bother conquering). In Fabric's biggest problem is that it's made up off two loosely-connected storylines, but because the first one is so much more interesting, it leads to some narrative slackness in the second half, and all in all, it's not a patch on his best work to date, The Duke of Burgundy (2014). Nevertheless, it's brilliantly acted, looks (and sounds) amazing, has an unparalleled commitment to the more tactile elements of the medium, is exceptionally funny, and will never allow you look at a washing machine repairman in quite the same way again.
Set in a London suburb at an unspecified point in the 1980s, the film tells the story of bank teller Sheila Woolchapel (Marianne Jean-Baptiste, playing the role as if she's in a piece of 1960s social realist cinema). A recently-divorced mother to a teenage son, Vince (Jaygann Ayeh), whose girlfriend Gwen (Gwendoline Christie having an absolute blast) seems to have moved in without asking, Sheila's life is in a rut. Having recently placed a lonely-hearts ad in the paper, she has an upcoming date, is determined to make a good first impression, and so visits a Dentley & Soper department store looking to buy something nice in the January sales. All but accosted by Eastern European sales assistant Miss Luckmoore (Strickland regular Fatma Mohamed, who gleefully plays the role like she's in a Halloween special of The Simpsons (1989)), she is talked into buying an "artery red" dress. However, it doesn't take long for Sheila to realise that something is not entirely kosher about the garment - from prompting dog attacks to trashing her washing machine to floating above her bed, clearly the dress is as nefarious as a Dublin-made shell suit (although it looks slightly less ridiculous), and has nothing but bad intentions for Sheila. Meanwhile, the wedding of washing machine repairman Reg (Leo Bill) and his fiancée Babs (Hayley Squires) is fast approaching; Sheila's micromanaging bosses, Stash and Clive (a hilarious Julian Barratt and Steve Oram, respectively), have some concerns over her method of shaking hands; Luckmoore and her boss, Lundy (Richard Bremmer), spend their free time doing something questionable to a mannequin; and a game of Ludo between Sheila, Vince, and Gwen redefines the term passive-aggressive.
In Fabric is fundamentally a consumerist satire, along the lines of Dawn of the Dead (1978). The malignant control that capitalism exerts on the masses, the commodification of desire, the exploitation and manipulation of notions of self-worth - all are interwoven into the film's style and texture. Strickland has a real talent for using his themes to elevate style into something more meaningful, and In Fabric provides more evidence of that, with the highly-stylised aesthetic commenting on the ultimate emptiness of retail therapy. Leaning into the artificiality of the film's milieu, Strickland makes no attempt to construct a believable, lived-in world, asking not only how do the customers of Dentley & Soper not realise something is wrong, but so too querying whether our own real-world behaviour is any different when we see an item we've been craving turn up in a sale.
With that in mind, although this is not an especially realistic film, it is an absolutely gorgeous film, and gleefully embraces gaudy 70s kitsch. Reproducing the hyper-stylised look of classic giallos, the most obvious touchstone is Suspiria (1977), with Strickland and cinematographer Ari Wegner bathing the film in a lurid colour palette of over-the-top reds, purples, and greens. The other-worldly vibe is helped immensely by Cavern Of Anti-Matter's synth score full of harsh electronic screams and repetitive droning, and the queasy, disorientating sound design by Martin Pavey. Filling the soundtrack with non-diegetic whispering and incantations, the aural design keeps the viewer constantly on edge, as if the evil in the dress has somehow infected the magnetic track - just listen to the sounds of the bargain-hunting crowds in Dentley & Soper, with the incoherent mumbling of their stampede into the store turned into a chaotic, animal-like din.
One of the film's most successful elements, and one of the reasons it's so funny, is how ultra-seriously everyone takes the whole thing. Jean-Baptiste, Bill, and Squires all play their parts as if they're in a Ken Loach film (which all three have been in the past), whilst Strickland, for his part, approaches the whole endeavour with a similar reverence - there's no winking at the audience here, and it's the absence of such winking that makes it all so funny. From Stash and Clive explaining the correct etiquette when meeting the mistress of one's boss to the sexual power that Reg has over women once he starts explaining the inner workings of a washing machine, the film's humour is rooted firmly in the fact that no one acts like they're in a comedy (just look at the Ludo game from hell or the scene where Stash and Clive discuss the difference between "looking for staff" and "trying to find staff"). The scenes of the dress crawling around Sheila's house are especially funny partly because they look so ridiculous (you can all but see the wires leading off-camera), but mainly because Strickland treats them with complete sincerity. A film about an evil dress shouldn't work on any level except parody, yet it's precisely because the film doesn't seem parodic that it works so well. This is particularly true of the insane proclamations uttered by Luckmoore ("the hesitation in your voice is soon to be an echo in the recesses of the spheres of retail"; "our perspectives on the specters of mortality must not be confused by an askew index of commerce"; "dimensions and proportions transcend the prisms of our measurements"; "did the transaction validate your paradigm of consumerism?"). This is pure verbal diarrhoea, and can only be in any way effective if it's roundly mocked. And yet, it's the utter dearth of mockery that renders each statement so hilarious.
In terms of problems, by the very nature of what he's trying to accomplish, Strickland is somewhat guilty of allowing the film's sensual elements to overwhelm the characters. Certainly, the film burrows under your skin and lodges there, and Strickland has absolute mastery of the tone, but aside from Luckmoore, none of the characters really linger because none are especially interesting as people. From an emotional point of view, there just isn't a huge amount of empathy or pathos. Also, because the Sheila plot is so much more interesting that the Reg plot, the film seems front-loaded, which is never good. And although it didn't bother me, some people will really dislike the amount of loose ends, unexplained background elements, and narrative dead ends, especially in the last act.
Nevertheless, I really enjoyed In Fabric. Yet more evidence that Strickland is a master stylist (in the best sense of the term), the craft behind the film is simply beyond reproach. Feeling for all the world like a rediscovered giallo, lost for the last four decades and restored to its original glory (complete with very questionable dubbing), it's cryptic and impenetrable, but so too is it hilarious and a feast for the senses. No one makes films quite like Strickland, where the existential and esoteric rub shoulders with the tactile and the sensual, where the textures of the milieu leap off the screen right alongside the themes. Hypnotic, seductive, immensely enjoyable, In Fabric is quite unlike anything you'll see all year.