Owing as much to the Italian giallo films of the 60s and 70s such as Suspiria as it does to Stanley Kubrick at his most arch with A Clockwork Orange, Peter Strickland’s In Fabric blazes out of the gates as one of the loopiest, most gorgeously shot thrillers I’ve seen in ages. Although set in present day London, you’d be forgiven for assuming you’ve dropped in on the cast of Valley Of The Dolls at one of their magazine photo shoots if it were to get taken over by a coven of witches. Yes, it’s that strange.
Grounding the craziness with a rich, deeply felt performance, Marianne Jean-Baptiste stars as Sheila, a lonely heart bank teller who, after a divorce, decides to dip her toes back into the dating pool. It’s seemingly a much better choice than staying in the apartment to watch her son Vince (Jaygann Ayeh) constantly having sex with his dominatrix-esque girlfriend Gwen (Gwendoline Christie from Game Of Thrones in a hilarious turn).
So off Sheila goes to the world’s strangest department store to find a suitable dress for her Want Ad date. It’s here she meets Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed), an Eastern European salesperson who speaks in convoluted platitudes which perfectly echo the themes of the film. When Sheila finds a blood red dress which shouldn’t fit but magically does, she purchases it as Luckmoore asks, “Did the transaction validate your paradigm of consumerism?” She’ll also purr, “Dimensions and proportions transcend the prisms of our measurements” and in one key moment will announce, “A dramatic affliction has compromised our trusted department store. Get out graciously.” Trust me on two things: 1) You will savor every word and 2) Each quote belongs on a t-shirt.
After a disastrous date, Sheila returns home to find the dress has given her a terrible rash. One scary encounter with her washing machine, and Sheila begins to realize that maybe her purchase has most decidedly NOT validated her paradigm of consumerism! In fact, the dress just may be haunted and murderous. To say more would spoil the unique pleasures of this film, which slowly unfold, shifting narratives and blending in vaguely menacing images of fashion advertisements, the occult, and one unforgettable “money shot”, all set to a pulsing synth score by Cavern of Anti-Matter. Every frame feels expertly composed and oddly disturbing. It’s a fantastic blend of cinematographer Ari Wegner working perfectly with Production Designer Paki Smith and Costume Designer Jo Thompson to realize Strickland’s otherworldly vision. David Lynch fans will recognize editor Matyas Fekete’s juxtaposition of the terrifying with the serene.
In Fabric wears its metaphors unmistakably on its red sleeves. It creates a world where consumerism is the only thing that matters, despite it leading only to carnage. Like a prettier 1984, everyone is being watched and controlled. Sheila’s bosses, a gay couple who micromanage her inappropriately, find the most petty of offenses in how she shakes a hand or looks at somebody the wrong way. Their banal friendliness only serves to underscore how culture can die with a smile just as easily as it can with a bomb. Sheila, in no position of power, can only acquiesce and hope against hope that she just won’t die alone. Without Jean-Baptiste, this film would drown in its own gorgeous excesses. With her, however, you feel the weight of the world as it plunges into madness, one validated transaction paradigm at a time. I can only assume Strickland has snuck in some diabolical form of hypnosis into the film to make us want to see it over and over again. As such, I am a willing victim.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
In Fabric (2019) is available to stream on Kanopy and to rent or purchase on Amazon, Google Play, YouTube and all of the usual VOD outlets.