★★★★★ - TIME OUT
- A funny, troubling fusion of English retail comedy and Euro slasher -
As if more evidence were needed that Peter Strickland was modern Britain’s answer to Luis Buñuel, his new film is a nerve-mangling surrealist nightmare about the January sales in Reading. Strickland has long been drawn to enclosed worlds that dance to their own private anti-logic, from Berberian Sound Studio’s warrens of obsolete audio kit to The Duke of Burgundy’s fairy-tale lesbian enclave.
In Fabric centres on a beauty: a mysterious Thames Valley department store called Dentley & Soper, where witchy sales assistants glide around in gothic gowns and purr to prospective customers about the “panoply of temptation” that awaits them inside.
One such shopper is Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a divorcee who visits during their annual clearance to buy a frock for an imminent lonely hearts date. A suitable garment is found in a shade described as “artery red”, though the saleswoman, Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed), neglects to mention the cursed phrase stitched stealthily onto its hem.
No, not “hand wash only”, but “you who wear me will know me” – a cryptic threat the dress itself will follow through on, by drifting about and wreaking bloodthirsty havoc in its owners’ lives. What ensues is a fusion of English class-driven retail comedy and European slasher scares – call it Are You Being Severed? – that is as funny and beautiful and troubling as anything I have seen this year.
Later on a second storyline emerges, about a washing-machine repair man called Reg (Mike Leigh regular Leo Bill) and his fiancée Babs (Hayley Squires from I, Daniel Blake), both of whom are also menaced by the haunted dress. Strickland’s earlier work has featured a number of sequences that play like waking dreams, but as In Fabric transitions from one plot to the next, it is as if the film itself is nodding off, in order to reach a conclusion a conscious mind could never have found. The effect is wholly and deliberately bewildering, both in the moment and for days and nights afterwards.
Don’t expect to solve it, either: the plot might begin with the purchase of a dress, but In Fabric is no satire of capitalism in the style of George A Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, where ravenous zombies stood in for braindead consumers. Weird things might be afoot at Dentley and Soper, but the staff’s midnight rituals – some of which involve a leering, Nosferatu-ish Young Mr Grace type (Richard Bremmer) and some extremely anatomically correct shop window dummies – defy description, let alone analysis. Better just to relax and enjoy having your subconscious expertly pummelled and tweaked.
Unlike The Duke of Burgundy, there is no credit here for an on-set perfumier – though a conspicuously placed bottle of that earlier film’s fragrance of choice, Je Suis Gizella, does topple from a shelf when the dress causes a washing machine to go on the rampage. That particular sequence, like so many here, is a masterclass in the uncanny: simultaneously frightening, banal and ludicrous.
Every stitch of In Fabric helps maintain that queasy tension, from the Cavern of Anti-Matter score, all throbbing synths and spidery harpsichords, to Martin Pavey’s woozy sound design, which enfolds the film like a duvet spritzed with chloroform. It helps no end, too, that the film’s three leads are veterans of the Mike Leigh/Ken Loach social-realist matrix, and bring an unvarnished empathy to their roles that grounds the wackier gambits.
Jean-Baptiste, who was Oscar-nominated for Secrets & Lies in 1997, is outstanding, giving Sheila a quiet and unassuming dignity in public that crumbles intriguingly behind closed doors. Most of the time she’s a picture of composure, whether soldiering through bleak first dates or dealing with her supervisors at work, amusingly played by Julian Barratt and Steve Oram as a pair of middle-managerial schlemiels.
Yet things change when she comes home to her surly teenage son (Jaygann Ayeh) and his older, brazen lover (Gwendoline Christie), who leaves a trail of worn lingerie behind her, like hairballs coughed up by a cat. Sheila is appalled by this – but she is also undeniably excited by the return of sex to her home, even in this taboo form.
Intimacy and unease are strange bedfellows, but In Fabric doesn’t want you to rest easy. It’s a film you can feel whispering in your ear while you sleep.
In Fabric is now playing at Light House Cuba!