In Fabric opens with a montage. After a pair of scissors is seen cutting open a cardboard box to reveal a red dress within, a succession of disparate stills plays over the credits. Department store interiors. A rope-bound hand in a bed. A face at a window. Women carrying a coffin indoors. The imprint of a distressed face under red fabric. A burning magazine ad. A bald woman. The orgasming face of an elderly man. A red-lit hand. Screaming women. A creepy mannequin. It is a confusing amalgam of artful fashion and horror, all syncopated to a giallo-esque score by Cavern of Anti-Matter – and while each and every one of these images is excerpted from the film to come, they leave the viewer with little idea of where exactly things are headed. That feeling of disorientation may well continue unabated, as Strickland transports us to a post-Christmas ‘Thames Valley On Thames’ that seems stuck both in the early Eighties, and in a parallel universe of unnerving, dummy-like archetypes.
Our introduction to Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) comes in the lonely hearts section of a local paper. At the top left of the page, set alongside an ad for ‘Dentley & Soper’s Trusted Department Store’ (a location that will prove key to the film), is a personal which includes the detail: “I don’t do hang-ups, weird stuff, heavy stuff. If you’re going to waste my time or pull any nonsense then move on to the next ad.” Sheila’s is one of those next ads. Separated from a husband who already has a ‘new bird’, and living with her teenage son Vince (Jaygann Ayeh) who engages in noisy sex around the house with his own much older girlfriend Gwen (Gwendoline Christie), 50-something bank teller Sheila is looking to put herself back on the market. So Sheila goes to Dentley & Soper’s sale, where she is seduced by peculiar shop assistant Miss Luckmore (Fatma Mohamed, also in Strickland’s Katalin Varga, Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy), speaking in heavily accented abstractions, into purchasing a singular red dress for her supposedly hot, but in fact very lukewarm, date. From here on in, although Sheila does eventually find love with Zach (Barry Adamson), everything else in her life goes wrong, seemingly under a curse from the dress.
It is clear, right from its mesmerising TV spots, that the department store is a precinct of cultic ritual, run by Mr Lundy (Richard Bremmer), Miss Luckmore and the other staff as a sort of stuffy mystical coven – not unlike the dance school in Suspiria (1977). In this space of yearning, exchange and contract, consumers are enchanted and ultimately exploited to maintain, embody and reproduce what Lundy calls the ‘paradigm of retail’. Yet the ritualistic conduct of Dentley & Soper’s extends beyond the shop floor to other areas. Sheila’s managers at Waingel’s Bank – the hilariously camp double-act of Stash (Julian Barratt) and Clive (Steve Oram) – seem unduly preoccupied with how their employee smells, how ‘meaningful’ her handshake is, how long she spends in the toilet, and even what she dreams. And in the film’s second half, as the narrative shifts its focus from Sheila to the younger, soon to be married Reg (Leo Bill), his stag night out with the lads is presented as an aggressive, humiliating rite of masculinity, with Reg both feminised by the newly acquired red dress, and infantilised with a baby’s dummy. Whenever Reg launches into one of his professional descriptions of washing machine repair, he enters a trance-like state, and his monotone words provoke an improbably erotic response in whoever happens to be around him.
Indeed, eroticism, fetishism and “weird stuff” pervade everything here, from Sheila’s voyeuristic interest in her son’s sex life, to Reg’s fixation on women’s stockings (rooted in a childhood memory from a clothes store), to Stash and Clive’s love of ‘rôle play’, to the peculiar nocturnal ceremonies of masturbation performed by the Dentley and Soper’s staff over and on an anatomically animated mannequin. Then there is Reg’s childhood sweetheart and fiancée Babs (Hayley Squires), perhaps the most grounded of all these characters, but still dreaming of her own demise – which will, eventually and inevitably – come. For, from its semi-nostalgic past, this bargain-hunting Little England is dressed in the perennial stylings of desire and death, constant presences that disrupt any semblance of order or narrative ‘hygiene’. Grotesquely randy beneath his veneer of old-world respectability, Lundy insists cryptically: “Like a whisper in an ocean, like a feather in a storm, a dress of deduction finds its character in a prism of retail abstraction.” It is as good a description as any of a film that tucks and weaves its way beyond any rational analysis, while accommodating in the folds of its (often very funny) fabric stories seemingly of any size, age or inclination. Try on this alluring one-off, and realise the fantasy.
Strap: From its bargain-basement Little England setting, Peter Strickland’s singularly styled IN FABRIC weaves fetishistic eccentricity and hilarious surprise.
© Anton Bitel