Peter Strickland’s new film “In Fabric” is as odd and compelling as you can expect from the filmmaker who gave us “Berberian Studio Sound” (2012) and “The Duke of Burgundy” (2014). Like these two films, the movie is full of strange and sinister moments wrapped with a deliberate trashy style reminiscent of those cheap European exploitation films during the 1970s, and I found it pretty fascinating even though I have no idea on what and how these weird moments are exactly about.
Set in a period somewhere around the 1970-80s, the movie is divided into two separate stories interconnected with each other to some degree, and the first story mainly revolves around a middle-aged bank teller named Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste). While she has struggled with some problem at workplace as well as her awkward relationship with her adolescent son after her recent divorce, an odd but strangely hypnotic TV commercial about a new department store happens to draw her attention, and she soon finds herself visiting that department store in question.
When Sheila looks around the boutique section of the department store, she is approached by its manager Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed, who previously appeared in “Berberian Studio Sound” and “The Duke of Burgundy”). While looking quite suspicious from the beginning with her odd mix of courteous manner and shady theatrical aura, Miss Luckmoore persuades Sheila to become her new customer, and Shiela comes to purchase a certain bright red dress, which she is going to wear for her latest blind date.
Of course, it does not take much time for Sheila to sense that there is something strange about the dress. For example, she finds it in her son’s room on one day, and she initially thinks that her son’s girlfriend tried to wear it, but her son denies that. When she subsequently puts the dress in her washing machine along with other clothes, that leads to quite a disturbing incident, and that makes her more nervous about it.
The movie does not hide from us at all that the dress is a very sinister entity. Sheila’s increasingly unnerving situation is often intercut with a series of bizarre rituals executed by Miss Luckmore and her associates including a certain creepy old man, and there is a truly bizarre moment involved with a mannequin which has the graphic imitation of a certain female body part. I was quite baffled by this and other strikingly weird moments to follow, but I was constantly intrigued and amused as appreciating their nightmarish qualities not so far from what I observed from David Lynch’s films.
And these odd and baffling moments are contrasted with the slightly offbeat moments in Sheila’s daily life. There is an amusingly uncomfortable moment between her and her two supervisors who are a little too fastidious about how she works, and then there is also a rather tense confrontation between her and her son’s girlfriend, who, as a girl taller than Sheila and her son, seems to intimidate Sheila as looking down at her. Gwendoline Christie, who is mainly known for her supporting role in HBO TV series “Game of Thrones”, certainly has a brief but juicy fun with her supporting character, and Strickland deliberately accentuates her height for emphasizing how much Sheila feels threatened by her son’s girlfriend.
As the situation becomes more ominous than before, Sheila tries to get away from the dress, but, not so surprisingly, we come to sense what will inevitably happen. Marianne Jean-Baptiste, who drew our attention for the first time with her Oscar-nominated turn in Mike Leigh’s “Secrets and Lies” (1996), is convincing as a woman who becomes slowly unnerved more by her unfortunate purchase, and she is particularly terrific when her character reveals something more about herself during the next interview with her two supervisors.
In case of the second story of the movie, it introduces to us to Babs (Halely Squires) and Reg (Leo Bill), a young couple who is soon going to marry. When Reg happens to receive that red dress from one of his friends who acquired it from a second-hand shop, he gives it to Babs, and their daily life soon comes under a bad influence thanks to the dress, which, again, exerts its evil power over its latest target.
While some elements from the first story including Miss Luckmore appear again in the second story, the movie adds more amusement via Reg’s certain exceptional ability. As a repair service man for some washing machine company, he simply tells about washing machines at times, but his phlegmatic explanation somehow sounds, well, sexually stimulating to people listening to it, and we are all the more amused as observing how oblivious he is to his effects on others. Leo Bill keeps his acting straight as required during these moments, and Halely Squires, who was wonderful in Ken Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake” (2016), ably complements her co-star with a more extroverted attitude.
When the second story eventually arrives at its expected finale, the movie goes all the way for more weirdness, and Strickland and his crew members including cinematographer Ari Wegner did a commendable job of holding our attention even during this part. Yes, I am still not sure about how to interpret what I observed from the finale, but it somehow makes sense with the surreal overall mood of the movie at least.
In conclusion, “In Fabric” is another interesting work from Strickland, and I enjoyed it as much as his previous two films, but you have to keep in mind that this is an arthouse horror film which depends more on mood and style instead of shock and awe. If you liked “Berberian Studio Sound” and “The Duke of Burgundy” like I did, you will surely not be disappointed, and you may also think twice about buying new clothes.