When I discovered that Peter Strickland was going to be a guest at last year’s Melbourne International Film Festival, I threw away my initial plans and scheduled my program to allow me to re-watch all of his films in the cinema, despite already owning them all on home media. So of course, having attended the debut Australian screening of In Fabric at last year’s MIFF, I couldn’t resist seeing it again when the Capitol Cinema aired it with two additional evenings of supporting programming: a live in-conversation between Peter Strickland and excellent film critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (a sequel of sorts to their MIFF conversation last year), and “A Masterclass on Fashion Victims, Desire, Bodies and Consumption.”
Like Peter Strickland’s other films, In Fabric operates on multiple levels. On a basic plot level it could be described as a horror movie about a cursed dress which wreaks havoc on its owner’s lives, but it’s far more interested in exploring the sensual experiences associated with fabric, professional language and corporate transactions.
The first shot of the film combines these elements, opening with the flick of a switchblade and a musical sting evocative of films in the giallo or slasher mould. Rather than penetrating a body, this knife is used to slice into a box, revealing the central protagonist – a one-of-a-kind red dress (“artery red” according to a later catalogue entry) with a “Sale” tag. The credits roll over a series of still images, horrific forecasts of later events jumbled in among images of shoppers or display catalogue entries, the swirling notes of the theme music melding with the (consciously composed) hubbub of department store crowds.
Dentley and Soper’s, the central department store from which the dress is purchased by Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), is reminiscent of the Tanz dance academy from Suspiria (1977), normal on the surface but peopled with shop assistants in identical black lace dresses resembling mourning garb, sporting hair styles and unnatural smiles more like fairytale witches than sales staff. They speak in elaborately florid sentences which only have a vague connection with regular human speech, more like the sales pitch in a fashion commercial than a conversation, spouting lines like: “The hesitation in your voice, soon to be an echo in the recess in the spheres of retail.” Our main experience of the shop staff is via Miss Luckmoore, played to perfection by Fatma Mohamed, a mainstay of Strickland’s films who has a compelling presence and the most astonishing ability to deliver dialogue which might otherwise be difficult to sell. In Strickland’s previous film, The Duke of Burgundy (2014), she had a small role as a carpenter specialising in customised fetish furniture, bringing an unexpected level of elegant discretion to the line: “Would a human toilet be a suitable compromise?”
Sheila is a divorced 50-year-old black woman living with her teenage art student son Vince (Jaygann Ayeh) and forced to put up with his girlfriend Gwen (Gwendoline Christie), a French woman modelling for him who is at least 10 years his senior and treats Sheila with casual contempt. Sheila is a quiet woman who puts up with a lot and is subjected to hypocritical behaviour from multiple directions. Despite Vince being quite comfortable with the idea that his father is already living with another woman, when he realises his mother is going out on a date he’s surprised, asking whether it’s “too soon”. Her first date, self-described as slim and easygoing, turns out to be self-absorbed and overweight, casually dispensing a crumpled rose from within his briefcase – and has the gall to complain that she looks different from her picture (she’s had a haircut). She works as a bank teller and is frequently called aside by her bosses, Stash & Clive (Julian Barratt & Steve Oram), a superficially friendly and approachable couple who use management-speak to convey niggling complaints about the quality of her handshake or her use of the bathroom during working hours just before clocking off, a one-off occurrence which they assume to be regular and which leads to the extraordinary speculation that she has a drug habit (possibly based, reading between the lines, on unacknowledged racist assumptions).
The dress eventually makes its way into the lives of Reg Speaks (Leo Bill) and his fiancee Babs (Hayley Squires). Reg is another quiet, put-upon individual, a washing machine repairman who is bullied into an alcohol-fuelled buck’s night by his fiancee’s father and his work colleagues. Reg is forced to wear the dress on his buck’s night, leading to a weird scene in which his father-in-law-to-be dances with him in a blatantly sexual fashion, literalising the toxic male attitude which views men like Reg as feminised by their non-aggressive behaviour. Much like Sheila, Reg also has an oppressive relationship with his employer, but here it manifests almost as a parody of the stereotype about male inability to communicate. Cottrell (Graham Martin) doesn’t speak at all when Reg is summoned to his office – he just stares at him, relentlessly, as if burning an entire conversation directly into Reg’s brain through his oppressive glare.
In contrast to the more-or-less openly coercive dynamic demonstrated in the communication between employer and employee, the communication between supplier and customer takes on a more magical, seductive aspect. The Dentley and Soper’s commercial which leads Sheila to visit their department store is almost like a summoning spell. Her attention is drawn immediately to the television as soon as the music bursts forth, unnaturally loud considering that what’s on screen both before and after the commercial is completely inaudible. The music and graphics (designed by Julian House) are a throwback to the 1970s and the ad is completely wordless – a rotating mannequin’s head is replaced by a slow pan across the sales staff, reaching forth in an eerie embrace to gather the viewer in, fingers splayed like mannequins, before a rotating shot of the red dress which will become so important.
Reg has his own unique talent when it comes to professional communication – his recital of washing machine repair procedures generates a tone which sends anybody listening into an ecstatic trance state. In one particularly funny/dodgy scene, bank managers Stash & Clive coax Reg into talking about washing machines in exchange for a low interest rate on his loan, coded very much as if they were coaxing him into offering sexual favours.
An attempt to return the dress to the original department store, seen very much as a reversal of the normal commercial imperative, triggers the spectacular meltdown of the film’s climax, drawing together all of the major plot threads and making oblique reference to the exploitation underpinning major commercial enterprises in a final sequence where the floors flickering past the descending dumb waiter register almost as individual frames (or literal cells?) in a film which is breaking down, laying bare the underlying structure.