Peter Strickland’s a bit of an odd bird, and remarkably, that’s never been clearer than in his latest film, In Fabric. Not even Berberian Sound Studio or The Duke of Burgundy quite matches the strangeness to be found between this film’s credits sequences. Strickland draws profoundly weird scenarios from the most everyday objects and situations in this film, and in the process delivers his funniest film yet.
Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Secrets & Lies, Broadchurch) plays Sheila, a middle-aged divorcee bank teller just starting to dip her toe back into the dating pool. Her workplace is full of micromanagers; her son is dating a rude older woman (a well-deployed Gwendoline Christie); and the personals ads in the local newspaper lack a certain pizazz. Making the most of things, Sheila purchases a red dress from a local department store - but the dress proves to be more trouble than it’s worth, carrying a supernatural aura that killed the model who once wore it.
If Jean-Baptiste plays In Fabric’s comedic straight-woman, regular Strickland collaborator Fatma Mohamed is her funny-woman opposite. As a shop assistant with a more than faintly witchy vibe about her, Mohamed is given glorious purple dialogue, delivering it in a thick Romanian accent that only further accentuates its verbosity. Her consumerist monologues read as if Strickland replaced every word with the most obtuse thesaurus alternative. Playing it straight and scoring laughs aplenty before tumbling down even weirder corridors, Mohamed steals the entire damn movie.
Which is justified, as Mohamed’s character lives at the centre of the demonic goings-on that simmer underneath the the film's entirety. The red dress is haunted, sure, but it’s only an extension of the store it comes from, whose staff (looking like refugees from some Victorian vampire tale) engage in bizarre rituals to, presumably, keep those shoppers shopping. The film exerts a strong opinion on consumerism, as epitomised by the winter sales (and their Satanic advertisements) with which its characters are obsessed. A thread of resigned dissatisfaction runs through the entire film, with hope lying just over the consumerist horizon. Just don't buy that red dress.
The second half of In Fabric takes a sharp left turn, swapping its initial set of characters for a washing machine repairman (Leo Bill) and his fiancee (Hayley Squires). Turns out the movie is something of an anthology film, with the dress tying its two halves together. Bill's and Squires’ segment delivers more bemused laughter, largely through unexpectedly erotic appliance jargon, and more dress-centric horror. It’s just hard to truly get into it after we’ve spent so much time investing in Jean-Baptiste’s character. Maybe it’d be the same were it cut the other way around. Either way, some hint that the movie would be structured in this fashion would have been welcome.
For all its ostensibly glitzy department-store couture, In Fabric bears a distinctly kitsch sensibility that adds to its charm. It’s not cheap-looking - on the contrary, it looks and sounds as crisp as you’d expect from Strickland - but the core conceit is Goosebumps-level cheesy. Where this goes from risible to delightful is in its treatment. Metaphysically, the dress causes chaos and calamity in an accursed fashion. Physically, it glides through the air like someone pretending to be a spooky ghost with a coat hanger. But it’s still treated as if it’s scary and profound, just as the comedic sequences are shot as if they’re high drama. This isn’t a scary movie, but it is definitely tonally discomfiting.
It’s also fucking funny. Sheila’s awkward dates, and her borderline-absurdist workplace dramas featuring cult comedy stars Steve Oram and Julian Barratt, function like comedy sketches, as do several scenes in the second half of the movie. One particularly odd digression involves the store owner (Richard Bremmer) comically jerking off as his employees masturbate a shop mannequin - complete with a beautifully-shot slow-motion cumshot sequence. And tying it all together, the protagonists emit a dowdy, incredulous Britishness that was once the territory of troupes like Monty Python.
In Fabric isn’t as cohesive as The Duke of Burgundy, nor as stylistically wild as Berberian Sound Studio. In most ways, it feels like a small film, an oddity, a curio. Structurally, it’s a smack in the face that many will reject. But for those susceptible to its slow-motion, giallo-inspired charms, In Fabric is a disjointed but wonderful collection of surreal, anticapitalist treats.