Though a little late, there’s some good news for those who were disappointed that Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria riff didn’t adapt the florid stylings of Dario Argento’s original: writer-director Peter Strickland, who over the past several years has become one of cinema’s most intriguing filmmakers, is back with another sardonically funny and unapologetically fetishistic homage to vintage European horror. Essentially unfolding like the giallo remake of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants that you never knew you wanted, In Fabric tells the bloody story of a department store in Southern England, and the cursed red dress that fits perfectly on the women who have the misfortune of wearing it. As much of a loving ode to the transformative power of fine clothing as it is a cheeky condemnation of the consumerism that drives people to buy it, Strickland’s long-awaited follow-up to The Duke of Burgundy might lack the cohesion of his previous film, but In Fabric is clearly cut from the same cloth. At a time when movies are seemingly growing more and more plastic as days pass, it’s always a riveting thrill to experience something that’s so attuned to the tactile pleasures of the cinema; to see a movie that you can feel with your fingers even when it throws you for a loop mentally.
While not achieving or really aiming for a similar level of emotional depth as The Duke of Burgundy, In Fabric invests entirely in the creepy-comic possibilities of its bizarre premise, and that’s more than enough. In Fabric is split into two parts. The first focuses on Sheila (a fantastic Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a newly divorced bank teller living sometime in the 1980s in the dreary English burb of Thames-Valley-on-Thames, a night terror version of the Reading where Strickland was raised. She’s stuck in her home with her son, Vince (Jaygann Ayeh), and his domineering girlfriend (Gwendoline Christie), and is in a dire need to get back on her feet. To shed her skin. To molt into a marvelous new version of herself. And what better way to do that than with a little retail therapy at the annual January sales that turn the townspeople into raving lunatics?
Shortly before going on a date, Sheila stops by Dentley & Soper’s for their January sales season and, of course, they aren’t your average department store. For one thing, their commercial is basically a trip of its own. For another, the head salesclerk, Miss Luckmoore (the fabulous Strickland mainstay Fatma Mohamed), is… uh … she’s a bit unusual. It’s weird enough how she behaves during work hours, speaking to customers in sinister (and occasionally funny) riddles. (“A purchase on the horizon, a panoply of temptation, the hesitation in your voice, soon to be an echo in the recesses of the spheres of retail,” she says at one point.) It’s even weirder to see what she does after business hours: Miss Luckmoore gathers with the other women of Dentley & Soper and gentle have their way with a menstruating mannequin. While, at the same time, an older man (who might be the manager of the store) masturbates as he watches the ritual from outside, because why not?
It doesn’t take much for Miss Luckmoore to persuade Sheila to buy a silky scarlet dress — not exactly her style, to be sure, but perhaps the right choice for exactly that reason. But, it’s right both through the process of purchasing and taking the dress home that the store’s women don’t let up on their off-kilterness. Is the store a secret coven of Satanists? Are the floor mannequins all dead women who’ve been embalmed in some kind of enchanted resin? Is Sheila’s new blood-red dress truly cursed, or is she just disappointed that a new look doesn’t magically allow for her to begin a new life? Strickland isn’t very interested in answering any of those questions — although, after the dress starts a nasty rash on her chest and starts levitating above her bed like a demonic wraith, it’s safe to say the danger isn’t only in her head — but he delights in raising questions most of us would never think to ask. Who owned that vintage gown or piece clothing before you did, and how much of their life was stained into the cloth? How does the durability of material objects reflect the quiet siren of our own impending deaths, and is there any way to use one to quiet the other? Why won’t costume designer Jo Thompson be nominated for an Oscar? Their all essential questions that ruminate through In Fabric.
In a jarring (and maybe a bit unwelcome) shift, we’re soon thrown into the second part of this story as Sheila’s dress is passed on. The transition from one part to the next does make the movie lose some steam, as we’re now focused on washing-machine repairman, Reg (Leo Bill) and his fiancée, Babs (Hayley Squires), whose encounters with the dress lead to further mayhem. The more we get into the second part, the more cryptic and existential In Fabric becomes, focusing on the physicality of its textures; on the busted machinery of a washing machine, the threaded silk of stockings, the hypnotic ASMR vibrations of a man describing the most boring thing in the world. After a certain point, the film all but seduces you into a kind of sensory plunge — you can almost see the twinkly harpsichord of Cavern of Anti-Matter’s feverishly pulsing score, and hear the blood-curdling screams that have been seemingly sewn into the dress. But as the nightmarish qualities are there, so is the fairly blatant anti-consumerist subtext and a hilarious recurring bit with two human-resource micro-managers (Julian Barratt and Steve Oram) that suggests a full-blown satire of working-class discontent. In Fabric practically unfolds in a twilight zone where capitalism is a kind of dark magic, people become slaves to shopping, and the language of corporate-speak casts its own cultish spell.
The sensual elements of In Fabric are as hard to deny as the touch of velvet on your flesh, but the film — which can get pretty silly, but always plays it straight — could, maybe, use to be a bit more interested in the people who fumble their way through its dream-like strangeness. But it’s that dream-like strangeness that’s steadily carried in the film’s distinct and somewhat jarring two parts, both are bonded together in the same hermetic world, an off-kilter reality where objects are as expressive as people, and maybe even more powerful. Showing that we are at the mercy of how they make us feel. Seductive and ravishing in its colors and textures, In Fabric is a sensual, unpredictable nightmare of lurid strangeness that draws you into its exquisite mystery of retail and offers you to giggle in its darkness.