On the often well-beaten path of genre cinema stands an English filmmaker whose work defies all expectations. When his second feature film, Berberian Sound Studio, came out, Peter Strickland landed on the world stage with a UFO (Unidentified Filmic Object) that combined an unusual plot with an exhilarating treatment, or the perfect marriage between a subject and its narrative conception. Remarkably well-paced lesbian drama The Duke of Burgundy was, however, less stylistically audacious given the director’s previous endeavours. Fans of intoxicating sensory experiences can rest assured: with In Fabric, Strickland pushes the envelope to the outer limits of cinematic boldness and narrative impudence, and maybe even beyond that.
What goes through your mind when you’re out shopping for clothes? It seems Peter Strickland thinks of a hell of a lot of things: Who wore this dress before? Is it cursed, haunted, sentient perhaps? What will it reveal about the person who wears it, and the people who see them wear it? What does the very act of choosing and buying this dress mean? All these questions form the basis from which the writer develops his new story about the people who come to wear a beautiful red dress and experience supernatural side effects.
In Fabric is a return to the world of the giallo, to hallucination-inducing editing, to non-sequitur inserts and unexpected sound blasts, to unpredictable writing decisions, to unfathomable characters, and to the extreme magnification of pedestrian aspects of daily life, to the point where the induced cognitive estrangement is so profound it is impossible not to be obsessed with it for hours, if not days, after the film is over. Just like he did with sound editing before, Strickland transforms the act of consumerism into an event of titanic proportions that can carry disproportionate consequences.
The high-end store that sells the aforementioned dress is presented as a temple where horror and the supernatural lurk at every corner. The manager, a decrepit old man who can barely stand on his legs, makes his bulging eyes almost stick out of their cavities during two memorable scenes. During one of them, he is shown ferociously masturbating to the sight of a plastic mannequin being undressed and washed by the shop assistants, before his semen flies from one end of the screen to another while his employee meticulously strokes the fake body’s very real pubic hair with her fingers, as the score from the band Cavern of Anti-Matter transports the audience to another plane of perception. The shop assistants, painted as non-human selling machines, sleep folded inside boxes and let out unstoppable torrents of words that are simultaneously crystal clear and so needlessly complicated that they provoke uncontrollable fits of hilarity, possibly resulting in a couple of deaths from laughter in the audience.
This is another surprise from Strickland, as In Fabric is an uproariously funny film that can trigger uncontrollable episodes of guffaw thanks to its precise writing and perfect timing from actors portraying abnormal, asocial and almost alien characters. Incapable of sustaining a simple conversation, these people express themselves with grunts, disconcerted looks or pointless monologues. Honourable mention goes to the two bankers who seem normal at first glance, but who eventually reveal they are completely insane when they go into a trance-like state while listening to the washing machine expert unload an unspeakable quantity of incomprehensible technical terms.
Strickland’s autopsy of the act of shopping, of fabrics and of the self-image can be interpreted any which way you want, and herein lies the film’s greatest strength. The director never forces the audience to take a specific reading for granted, because that’s not what interests him. Solely concerned with stylistic experimentations, Strickland leaves the power of interpretation in the capable hands of an audience he has complete confidence in, because that’s what the film is eventually (potentially, that might change for you) about: to rage endlessly about the absence of meaning in existence, or to apply your own meaning to the things you buy, the things you do, the things you are and that make you.
Every shot and every transition between them are so sophisticated that no one in the industry even comes close to comparing. There is not one scene that doesn’t have a substantial impact on the viewer, who is constantly affected by an image (the nightmarish shot of the dress hovering above its sleeping owner), a sound (the ear-splitting shriek that manifest out of nowhere during certain transitions), or a mix of both (the TV spot for the department store playing on a loop, with a petrifying, overpowering music).
Some people will be irritated and wonder what the point of such a stylistically hyperbolic film might be. The question sort of answers itself. In Fabric is a one-of-a-kind experience, an uncompromising sensory assault that cheekily thwarts any and all attempts at over-analytical ways of watching movies in favour of the glorification of the senses, the only cinematic force that can take viewers from laughter to terror, and from confusion to fascination.
Directed by Peter Strickland
With Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Hayley Squires, Leo Bill