Peter Strickland’s frigid, Freudian fever dream looks at fetishism and consumerism with a killer sense of style.
Peter Strickland sure loves fetishes.
Let’s be clear, though: fetishism need not be sexual. The term was first used to describe the belief that objects held supernatural abilities and, depending on use or purpose, could help people. Maybe they could assert power; maybe they could simulate a touch sans physical contact. Extrapolate this a bit more and you get the eroticism we now ascribe the word. But where exactly is the line between the erotic and everything else? In In Fabric, it all blends together: the sensual and the sparse, the sparse and the spooky, the spooky and the solitary.
Such is the life of Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a recently divorced woman living with her art-snob son, Vince (Jaygann Ayeh). As she puts personal ads in the singles’ section of the paper, he wraps himself around the finger of his Bettie Page-esque girlfriend, Gwen (Gwendoline Christie). A squishy, synthy score from Cavern of Anti-Matter matches the onscreen barrages of catalogue photos and television ads, and when Sheila finally secures a date, she’s onto the next step. Time to buy a new dress.
Welcome to Dentley and Soper’s, where the changing rooms are called “The Transformation Sphere” and the mannequins welcome customers legs akimbo. Sheila tries on an “artery red” gown, and while she’s unsure at first, one Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed) soothes her worries with a heavy accent that calms the nerves like a warm shot of embalming fluid. Out is the misophonia of Sheila’s home life. In comes a textured, ASMR-adjacent sense of peace. Oh, but just one thing: this dress is haunted, and it’s homicidal.
But never mind that. With the dress comes a newfound identity, one that sellers put on so buyers will give in. Suffice it to say that some truly bizarre stuff goes on in the store’s catacombs, but beyond the Giallo aesthetics and keen blend of sight and sound comes something much deeper. In Fabric isn’t just a satire on consumerism (although it is that as well). It’s a look at sexuality, gender, and the power that clothes have over us. Does that sound kind of funny? That’s because it is. It’s hilarious, even.
By skating the lines of amorality, reality, and dream logic, In Fabric explores its Freudian themes without necessarily endorsing them. A lot of it has to do with Strickland’s grip on his scope; as he introduces us to a new character, he indulges in their myopias, assigning others to the periphery until each successive arc grows more and more immediate. That dream logic? Those Lynchian interiors? That instant gratification that most people want during the holiday rush? They all get tighter until they fold in like a collapsing star.
The ways that In Fabric compounds and contradicts fears, infatuations, impulses, and the feminine against the masculine lead to a larger grey area—a hypnagogia of reaping, ravishing, ruining, and recycling.
There’s no doubt that there are more than a few shifts that will alienate viewers, not all of them narrative. Therein lies the unpredictability. The ways that In Fabric compounds and contradicts fears, infatuations, impulses, and the feminine against the masculine lead to a larger grey area—a hypnagogia of reaping, ravishing, ruining, and recycling. It’s when Strickland treats his characters as a conveyor belt of insecurities that he really shows its cynicism. It’s also when he shows a bit more of his sympathies.
It almost never gets in the way of its entertainment value, however. He’s crafted a devilish comedy here, what with his attention to dialogue that can bang the doldrums or rasp the mind as it so pleases. The performances, ranging from campy to deadpan, also point to a growing irascibility. Combine this with how Mátyás Fekete blends montages with much more languid moments and the film finds its flow. A few scenes in its second half aren’t as tight as they could have been, but the abandon with which Strickland goes for it all cannot be denied.
Some will dismiss the film as 118 minutes of hogwash. Some will immediately fall under its spell. Some won’t be entirely convinced, but just give it time. Like Miss Luckmoore observes early on, “The hesitation in your voice… soon to be an echo in the recesses of the spheres of retail.” Slink into its silk and the rest will take care of itself.
In Fabric wafts its way through select cities this Friday, December 6 before hitting VOD on December 10.