Movies 17 October 2018 | 12:21

LFF review: ‘In Fabric’ must be seen to be believed

17 October 2018 12:21

A possessed dress; washing machines gone wild; slow motion shots of ejaculate arching across the screen; a menstruating mannequin; and a troop of department store sales assistants, who look like they’ve wandered off the set of a Tim Burton film, talk in strange riddles, and perform kinky sex shows in the stock room after hours. Trying to explain Peter Strickland’s high camp horror In Fabric to someone who wasn’t in the audience, I found myself compiling this list instead. I’m still trying to work out what the hell it all means.

There’s that ‘stagey’ feel of old film-sets, a slightly off-kilter 1970s setting, the essence of giallo – blood that’s slightly too bright, screams that are slightly too high pitched, an exaggerated eroticism, an electric harpsichord-heavy synth score. Fans of Strickland’s particular mise en scène certainly won’t be disappointed; In Fabric is a sumptuous feast for the senses, right down to the weird ASMR-inducing washing machine repair man, who only has to start talking about door seals and drums to send people into paroxysms of pleasure, their eyeballs rolling back in their heads and their fingers curling with delight. In Fabric slips perfectly into Strickland’s oeuvre but it’s slightly less successful as a cohesive, stand-alone film.

Sheila – played by the brilliant Marianne Jean-Baptiste in what’s probably her best role since Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies (2015) – is a recently divorced bank teller. After arranging a blind date via the local paper’s lonely hearts section, she heads to Dentley & Soper to buy something nice to wear. Dentley & Soper isn’t just any department store though. It’s presided over by a creepy old man who looks like a wild-eyed, emaciated Scrooge, and his team of mannequin-like saleswomen – all of whom wear elaborate wigs and dress like mourners at a Victorian funeral. This is classic Strickland territory, fetishism and fantasy of the like he served up in both The Duke of Burgundy (2015) and Berberian Sound Studio (2012). Though each of those films were about revealing the artifice behind the facade, here it’s much harder to work out where the real world ends and that of smoke and mirrors begins.

The head salesperson, a crinoline-wearing Fatma Mohamed (who also starred in Strickland’s previous three films), convinces Sheila to buy a beautiful ‘artery red’ dress. Hers is no empty sales pitch – not least because she sounds like she’s swallowed the dictionary: ‘A purchase on the horizon, a panoply of temptation’ – the dress really does look great on Sheila. The only downside is its habit of crawling around of its own volition, and floating ominously above her bed at night with murderous intent.

That this cursed dress, and thus with it the narrative, is passed to new characters halfway through the film is jarring. Not because they – the aforementioned washing machine repair man, Reg Speaks (Leo Bill) and his fiancée Babs (Hayley Squires) – aren’t good; they are, but the film feels like it loses its way. There seems to be a critique of consumerism in here somewhere, but even though those charmed by the red dress’s sensuality are cruelly punished for their materialistic weakness, it’s not a straightforward message about the evils of capitalism. Strickland’s also acknowledging the metamorphic power a beautiful garment can have on the person who wears it – the sign above the Dentley & Soper fitting rooms reads ‘the transformative sphere.’ Often extremely funny, consistently weird and with some genuinely subversive moments, In Fabric certainly deserves to be seen, if only to be believed.