In Fabric – Film Review
Directed by Peter Strickland
Starring Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Fatma Mohamed, Gwendoline Christie
Review by David Turpin
Peter Strickland’s 2014 erotic fantasia The Duke of Burgundy emerged fully formed as an authentic modern classic. With a fetishist’s obsession for objects and surfaces, and an erotomaniac’s compulsion for repetition and restaging, the film confirmed Strickland as cinema’s pre-eminent Poet of Onanism, edging out even the legendary Walerian Borowczyk (Blanche, The Beast). At the same time, the film had a meaning entirely separate from its ‘Eurotica’ trappings – a wisdom and insight that suggested ‘onanism’ might, after all, be a route to self-knowledge. Strickland’s new feature, In Fabric, is as fetishistic, as compulsive and as rarefied as its predecessor. Although it ultimately lacks The Duke of Burgundy’s absolute coherence of form and piercing intelligibility of meaning, it is – at the very least – a singular pleasure to watch, for much of its running time.
The film revolves around a haunted dress, offered – on sale, no less – in a creepy occult department store staffed by, among others, Strickland veteran Fatma Mohamed. There, it is first purchased by Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a recently separated bank teller who is nervously re-entering the dating pool – to the dismay of her son Vince (Jaygann Ayeh) and the amusement of his obnoxious girlfriend Gwen (Gwendoline Christie, in rare form). As obscure, retail-related rituals unfold at its source, the dress soon begins to exert a malign influence on Sheila’s life – and her washing machine.
The first half of the film is brilliant. Taking the same curator’s eye to the trappings of 1970s British Amicus Horror productions as he did to softcore European erotica in this previous film, Strickland once again performs his alchemy of turning supposed kitsch into capital-A art. As with Sidse Babett Knudsen in The Duke of Burgundy, he is aided by an exceptional performance – here from Jean-Baptiste – that places genuine, recognisable humanity within the minutely controlled stylistic compound of the film. In fact, this could be Jean-Baptiste’s best role since her celebrated turn in Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies (1996) – and if it isn’t, it’s better. It’s one thing to bring intelligence and empathy to a character in a determinedly ‘realist’ film – although Leigh’s films are, of course, just as ‘constructed’ as Strickland’s – but it’s quite another to perform the same alchemy while contending with levitating dresses and shop assistants who ask “Did the transaction validate your paradigm of consumerism?”
All this is why it’s a shame that In Fabric – through developments that will not be spoiled here – eventually becomes a kind of ‘diptych’, as the dress passes to new owners and continues its reign of havoc. There’s nothing exactly ‘wrong’ with the second story – in which wet blanket Reg (Leo Bill) and his fiancée Babs (Hayley Squires) find themselves on the wrong end of the curse – but it feels familiar in a way that, paradoxically, seems quite alien in Strickland. At times, it seems as if the hand of Ben Wheatley – credited as an executive producer – weighed heavier in this section, in which Strickland’s eerie fantasies of feminine mystique give way to a more conventional parody of pathetic masculinity. While the second half tips the scale of the film more definitively to comedy – particularly in how it pushes a running joke involving Reg’s explication of washing machine functionality – the first half is actually funnier, as well as scarier, and sexier. The diptych structure also feels inconsistent with Strickland’s unerring ability to manipulate existing conventions into new shapes – as anyone who has seen The Uncanny (1977) can attest, the magic number for this kind of thing is three, not two.
At times, In Fabric also spells out themes in bolder letters than one is accustomed to from Strickland, the obvious example being its proliferation of – admittedly striking – masturbation scenes. While a scene of demonic shop assistants masturbating a mannequin until it bleeds has gained the most notoriety, a more telling scene involves a character disrupted by the telephone during a wank, but finding himself unable – or unwilling – to abandon his own pleasure and attend to it. It seems both an uncharacteristically easy joke, and an overly straightforward representation of one of the film’s underlying themes – the dangers of attendance to pleasure in a hostile world.
None of this is to suggest that In Fabric is anything less than a must-see. A baggier Strickland is still scintillating and unnerving in ways that few other contemporary filmmakers would think to attempt. If it doesn’t quite match the heights of his previous films, that’s only because they are so very good. Anyone who wants to see a possessed washing machine, or to follow a dumb-waiter to retail purgatory – and who doesn’t? – is still advised to attend.