Good news for those who are (or will be) disappointed that Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” riff is a rebuke to the florid stylings of Dario Argento’s original: “The Duke of Burgundy” writer-director Peter Strickland is back with another mordantly funny and unapologetically fetishistic homage to vintage Euro-horror, and there’s no disguising its dark lineage. Unfolding like the giallo remake of “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” that you never knew you always wanted, “In Fabric” tells the bloody story of a department store in Southern England, and the cursed red dress that fits perfectly on the women who have the misfortune of wearing it.
As much of a loving ode to the transformative power of fine clothing as it is a cheeky condemnation of the consumerism that drives people to buy it, Strickland’s long-awaited new delight might lack the cohesion of his previous film, but “In Fabric” is cut from the same cloth. At a time when movies are growing more plastic by the day, it’s always a thrill to experience something that’s so attuned to the tactile pleasures of the cinema; to see a movie that you can feel with your fingers even when it bypasses your heart or goes over your head.
“In Fabric” is split into two parts, though the first goes on for so long —and is told with such depth — that it’s jarring (and a bit unwelcome) to be thrust into the second. Sheila (the brilliant Marianne Jean-Baptiste, enjoying her best role since Mike Leigh’s “Secrets & Lies”) is a newly divorced bank teller living in the dreary English burb of Thames-Valley-on-Thames, a night terror version of the Reading where Strickland was raised. Stuck in a house with her son (Jaygann Ayeh) and his domineering girlfriend (Gwendoline Christie, savagely droll as a thorn in Sheila’s side), our girl needs to get back on her feet. To shed her skin. To molt into a marvelous new version of herself. And what better way to do that than with a little retail therapy at the annual January sales that turn the townspeople into raving lunatics?
Of course, Dentley & Soper isn’t your average department store. For one thing, their commercial is basically a Rodney Ascher short film; the logo might as well be lifted from “The S from Hell.” For another, the head salesclerk (Transylvanian actress Fatma Mohamed, a mainstay in Strickland’s films) is … um … a bit unusual. It’s weird enough how she behaves during work hours, speaking to customers in sinister riddles. (“A purchase on the horizon, a panoply of temptation, the hesitation in your voice, soon to be an echo in the recesses of the spheres of retail.”) It’s even weirder to see what she does after business closes for the day: Miss Luckwood gathers with the other women of Dentley & Soper and toys with one of the mannequins until it bleeds from its vagina. A man who bears an uncanny resemblance to “Ghostbusters II” villain Vigo the Carpathian masturbates as he watches the ritual from outside, because why not? His projectile bolo of sperm is the subject of the film’s most tender closeup, but it’s his face that you remember — everyone in Strickland’s films has a face.
Is the store a secret coven of Satanists? Are the floor models all dead women who’ve been embalmed in some kind of enchanted resin? Is the blood-red dress that Sheila buys at the sales truly cursed, or is she just disappointed that a new look doesn’t magically allow for her to begin a new life? Strickland isn’t very interested in answering any of those questions — although, after the dress rots above Sheila’s skin and starts floating above her bed like a demonic wraith, it’s safe to say the danger isn’t only in her head — but he delights in the questions those questions raise, most of which we never think to ask. Who owned that vintage gown before you did, and how much of their life was stained into the cloth? How does the permanence of material objects reflect the quiet siren of own impending deaths, and is there any way to use on to quiet the other? Why won’t costume designer Jo Thompson be nominated for an Oscar? Quoth Miss Luckmoore: “Our perspectives on the specters of mortality must not be confused by an askew index of commerce.” Right?
The more cryptic and existential “In Fabric” becomes, the more it focuses on the physicality of its textures; on the busted machinery of a washing machine, the threaded silk of hosiery, the hypnotic ASMR vibrations of a man describing the most boring thing in the world. After a certain point, Strickland’s film all but seduces you into a kind of synesthesia — you can almost see the twinkly harpsichord of Tim Gane’s score, and hear the blood-curdling screams that are sewn into Sheila’s dress once she passes it on to a bridezilla called Babs (Hayley Squires). Both parts of the film are bonded together in the same hermetic world, an off-kilter reality where things are as expressive as people, and maybe even more powerful. We are at the mercy of how they make us feel.
The sensual elements of “In Fabric” are as hard to deny as the touch of velvet on your flesh, but the film — which is very silly, but always serious about it — could use to be a bit more interested in the people who fumble their way through its dream-like strangeness. The movie slackens and spreads itself out instead of sewing itself up, leaving behind a mess of loose threads in a film where every detail has been fetishized within an inch of its life. Strickland’s craft never slackens, even as executive producer Ben Wheatley’s dry sense of humor begins to exert a greater influence, but the story gets away from him; perhaps it would have been better to focus on one character, or to introduce several more. Or maybe it doesn’t matter, because they’d all just be searching for whatever allows them to touch, or smell, or taste a certain something beyond their own bodies. The source may be different for everyone, but the thrill is always the same. “In Fabric” doesn’t know what you want, but Peter Strickland is certain that it will drive you wild.
“In Fabric” premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.