Peter Strickland’s “In Fabric” is all about a killer dress. When the middle-aged Sheila Woodchapel (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) buys it, she knows it’s flattering, artery red, and perfect for her tentative reentry into the dating pool. What she doesn’t realize is it carries a mysterious and malevolent curse that will threaten everyone who comes in its path, including her. It’s a project and role unlike anything the veteran actress has ever done.
“We’ve had killer cars, killer toys, but nothing quite like this,” Jean-Baptiste said. “But absolutely, it was for those reasons. When I first saw Peter’s past work, I thought, I’d love to work with this guy, because, even though I’m not always sure what to make of them, I loved the way he tells stories, the way he paints images.”
Strickland was the singular creative force behind the opulent sadomasochistic romance, “The Duke of Burgundy,” and giallo homage, “Berberian Sound Studio.” And with “In Fabric,” Sheila’s life quickly becomes very strange and unpredictable the minute she exits the department store, with bizarre sex rituals on mannequins, unexplainable rashes, and demonic washing machines.
Jean-Baptiste upended expectations starting with her first major role in Mike Leigh’s 1996 “Secrets & Lies.” That brought her Golden Globe and Academy Award Best Supporting Actress nominations, and made her the first black British actress to be nominated for an Academy Award. Jean-Baptiste know that Sheila would be an eccentric role for any actress, and even more so for one who’s 52 years old — at that age, Hollywood often prefers to consign women to warmhearted moms, when they’re considered at all. However, that made her even more interested in the opportuinity to work with a director like Strickland.
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“I loved the idea of a piece of clothing being haunted, and I think this is the first film that made me think of buying clothing as essentially buying a history, or maybe several histories and stories that you have no knowledge of,” Jean-Baptiste said. “I thought, this will either work or it won’t, but at the very least, it should be a very interesting experience. Peter and I talked a lot about what it would mean to follow a garment through different owners, much less one that has a curse on it, endowed with the power to enhance bodily features in a way that seduces the owner. And we wondered how far we could push this.”
Jean-Baptiste felt an immediate empathy for the lonely Sheila, a character with unrelenting bad luck, who the actress described as “incredibly sad.”
“She’s relatable and most importantly unseen, which I think is how many of us feel,” she said. “However, that doesn’t mean life will be fair to her. That notion was interesting to explore, and the crucial and rewarding part of the process for me as an actress, was sussing her out, which, in a way, raised my own level of empathy.”
Although, at the end of each filming day, she was glad to leave Sheila on set. “One of the joys of playing an extreme opposite,” she said.
She initially expected the experience of being drawn into what she called “Stricklandland,” to be rigid, but working with the filmmaker, known for his meticulousness and very clear vision, was a pleasure.
“He knows exactly what he wants, but in that sense, as an actor, it’s quite freeing really,” she said. “Yes, everything has already been well thought out, and there are boundaries, but he gives you freedom within them to explore. You’d think it would be quite restrictive, but it wasn’t.”
She admitted that working with the eccentric director required patience at times, although her familiarity with his previous work prepared her. “You trust that, even though you may not always know what he’s thinking, and you find yourself just sort of standing around,” she said. “[But] he’s going to create something really beautiful and interesting, so you think, ‘Let me just go with it.'”
The end result is a peculiar, unsettling film, alarming and seductive. With dark humor, Strickland’s original vision weaves bloodshed into a tapestry of voyeuristic fantasies of high fashion.
In his review, IndieWire’s David Ehrlich wrote, “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.”
And while her “In Fabric” experience hasn’t particularly impacted Jean-Baptiste’s shopping habits, as a woman of Caribbean heritage, folklore ensures that she doesn’t entirely dismiss the possibility of real-life parallels.
“As the child of a very superstitious Antiguan mother, who would say that wearing something that another person has worn could result in you taking on their problems, like a residual energy, listen, I’m not one to argue with old Caribbean women about things like that,” she said.
A24 opens ‘In Fabric” December 6.