Director: Peter Strickland
Starring: Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Gwendoline Christie, Julian Barratt
Running time: 118 mins
Reviewing anyones creative work can be tricky; it’s all too easy to attribute intent to the creator's mind. Did they try to tell us something? What’s the subtext? What does it say about how they think and who they are? Instead of asking them directly, we try to guess, shamelessly judging the piece and, therefore, the creator.
That’s particularly true with films. Is the film bad because the director was sloppy or because he went through hell to make it? Is it politically correct or subversive for its time? But by focusing on what we think the intent is, we forget about the main thing a film - or any piece art really - is about: telling a story, making us escape from our realities for a period of time. This is something that modern audiences seem to have forgotten, too. We seem to enjoy the craft of the genre less and less, and are just out for a quick thrill fix.
Peter Strickland’s new feature does exactly the opposite of this. It comes back to the roots of cinema: telling a story within a chosen framework. I have to admit that I've grown so used to the new way of things that I expected a lecture about life or social issues that I may have fallen into the trap of impugning these motives behind In Fabric, had I not attended the post-screening Q&A with Strickland at Broadway Cinema. Without the director's insight, I would have focussed on an apparent anti-consumerism message within a Giallo aesthetic. And I would have missed the point.
We start by meeting Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a single mother, dealing with her young adult son (Jaygann Ayeh), his obnoxious new girlfriend (Gwendoline Christie) and her passive-aggressive managers (Steve Oram and Julian Barratt) at her bank job while trying to build a new life after her being left by her husband. In doing so, she starts dating again, and decides she needs a new dress. This brings her to Dentley & Sopper’s - a peculiar clothing shop where she falls under the spell of a lovely blood-red dress, following advice from the enigmatic Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed).
In Fabric is best described as reminiscent of the 70s Giallo genre, but with its very own wicked sense of humour
We’re lured into thinking that Sheila is the main character, and to forget what the film poster warned us about: ostensibly, that we're watching a movie about a killer dress. Literally. Without revealing too much of the story, we’re going to follow this haunted piece of fabric and witness its diabolic influence on its owners. "At first, I thought about telling the story of six owners, but didn’t have the budget", says Strickland. Nonetheless, he manages to make the dress pass through the hands of four people thanks to his storytelling ability.
With its hypnotising TV ads, cut scenes and D&S’s lunatics customers, In Fabric could be seen as questioning our consumerist society. But looking closer, that’s merely a background to the characters. "It would hypocritical of me to criticize consumerism," says Strickland, "I’m sure that right now I’m wearing something made by very badly paid people." Indeed, the wearers, Sheila, Reg (Leo Bill) and even insecure Babs (Hayley Squires) are not consumerists and are never judged, they just react to their environment and to its social expectation. Even the genre is only a framework for the story, using the haunting dress to explore different characters behaviours. Strickland explains that the killer dress is an excuse for him to explore our relationship to clothes, how we feel when we see clothing worn by other people or how we are transformed when we wear new clothes. But also the life of piece of clothing, which is likely to pass from a wearer to another, and to be exposed to all sort of body fluids. And I mean all.
Visually In Fabric is best described as reminiscent of the 70s Giallo genre, but with its very own wicked sense of humour. However, even if Strickland doesn’t deny it could be an influence, he explains that the visual inspiration mostly comes from Kienholz’s sculptures and installations, and M.R. James television adaptations of the 1970s. But it's also the sound design that makes In Fabric a very peculiar experience, whether it is the haunting soundtrack by synth group Cavern of Anti-Matter or the sound of scissors cutting a fashion catalogue, or the long embarrassing silences, the film uses every tool available to create sensation. And if you’re a bit synesthetic like I am, it can become a very physical experience. I’m sure the film has the potential to become cult among some fetishists. Time will tell.
When reviewing this year’s Suspiria, I talked about how the genre has evolved and how I miss little brats like Dario Argento, John Carpenter and Paul Verhoeven, but also how the film tried too much to be something else, rejecting its very own nature. With its organic feel and peculiar ambiance, In Fabric, has more in common with Dario Argento’s Suspiria than its adaptation, and proves that you can be respectful to the genre while creating something original. And Peter Strickland may be the little brat I was missing in cinema, the kind who is ready to take risks and doesn’t really care about what we’re going to think, instead focusing religiously on delivering his story in the way he wants to.
In Fabric is not tailored (pun intended) to please an audience, but is the pure product of its creator’s mind. Some will take it, some will leave it, but few will doubt how refreshing it is.
Did you know? In Fabric premiered at TIFF (Toronto international Film Festival) in Canada in September 2018
In Fabric is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 4 July