Peter Strickland’s follow-up to his visually striking study of love and lust The Duke Of Burgundy follows not an individual, but a red dress — though the garment does appear to be animated by a will of its own. Through the demonic spells of a witchy department store clerk (Fatma Mohamed), the dress dutifully resolves to ruin the lives of anyone who purchases it.
This over-the-top horror premise immediately recalls the giallo genre, and the films of Dario Argento in particular — the way Strickland shoots the store mannequins as if they were alive women seems a literal callback to Argento’s representation of the female form as an abstract object of beauty. Strickland’s previous effort, like most entries in that most peculiar of Italian genres, dealt with sensuality, violence, and oblique symbolisms; perhaps it was only a matter of time before he would thread the giallo into his own creations.
Yet In Fabric only takes the nigh-on defunct genre as its starting point, and significantly strays from the original pattern. The tone of Argento’s work often wavers between horrified contemplation and confusion, but only occasionally delves into humour. Strickland gives his film an unexpected dimension by acknowledging and playing with the often incongruous narrative leaps that these Italian films often make. When Sheila (the wonderful Marianne Jean-Baptiste) listens to the clerk describe the qualities of the dress in an overwhelming torrent of verbose prose, the customer only raises an eyebrow. Like many giallo heroines, she is oblivious to the clear danger she is putting herself into. But In Fabric wears this ridiculousness on its sleeve, and the film is imbued with that particularly British absurdist sense of humour.
This also makes for a kinder portrayal of the fashion victims. The film’s first part is even touching, following Sheila’s efforts to find another man after her divorce with an empathetic but never pitiful eye. But just as the ruthless dating scene of 1960s newspaper ads finally seems to bring her good news, Strickland brutally shift gears.
Although startling, this change is where the film spins the genre’s obsession with the female figure (and its sexism) on its head most clearly and with most amusing effect. We are plunged into even more absurdist territory when the dress moves on to its next victim, a bland washing machine repairman called Reg (Leo Bill). This mismatch, together with Reg’s total lack of any ambitions or desires — he is set to marry Babs (Hayley Squires), the only girl he’s ever been with — makes for a very fast and often hilarious descent into madness.
The rather light, sarcastic film feels a little overextended at almost 2 hours, and its visual style less polished than one might hope. But the odd and unique style of In Fabric is worth trying on for size.
In Fabric was seen and reviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival 2018.