One of contemporary cinemas most distinctive voices, Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio, The Duke of Burgundy) has delivered one of his most offbeat – but refined – films to date with In Fabric, which rates among the very best films I caught at this year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
On its surface, the boilerplate plot description of In Fabric does Strickland’s film no favors: a movie about a killer dress that causes death and violence as it passes from owner to owner, this could be the storyline of any number of schlocky ‘70s horror picture along the lines of Death Bed: The Bed That Eats.
And there are, of course, sequences in the film that live up to that description: a ghostly dress floating in the air and seemingly watching over our protagonist, high-fashion Stepford salespeople out to menacingly control the fate of said dress, and a creepy department store owner who compulsively masturbates amongst display mannequins.
But In Fabric is far less interested in the salacious aspects of its story than in their presentation. As in Strickland’s previous features, the director is primarily concerned with two major elements: a retro visual and aural style that authentically recalls 1970s Eurotrash flicks, and a matter-of-fact delivery that revels in a kind of surreal mundanity.
It’s the film’s stark presentation that casts a perplexing spell over its audience: as a laundry machine repairman rattles off nonsensical mechanical descriptions to the perverse ecstasy of a pair of bank managers, how are we supposed to feel? In Fabric straddles such a fine line between genres that any single scene can be experienced as horror, comedy, drama, or suspense, and no reaction is wrong (at a late-night screening in Karlovy Vary, laughter and gasps filled Kino Čas for the duration of the film).
Marianne Jean-Baptiste headlines a first-rate cast as Sheila, a single mother in the 1980s UK struggling to make a connection on the classifieds dating scene while dealing with her son (Jaygann Ayeh) and his punk girlfriend (Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie, in an eye-opening turn that couldn’t be further from Brienne of Tarth).
Lulled into the local department store through a deliciously retro television ad, Sheila is sold the haunted dress by a loquacious saleswoman (Fatma Mohamed); eventually, after some strange goings-on at home, she learns more about the only other person to wear it, a catalog model (Sidse Babett Knudsen, star of Strickland’s previous film The Duke of Burgundy) who met a tragic end.
Early scenes with Sheila, carried by Jean-Baptiste’s empathetic, relatable turn, give In Fabric the entrancing vibe of vintage 1970s giallo picture, and despite some low-key comedic side turns, it would have made an effective horror film despite the offbeat premise.
But Strickland has other plans in mind, and In Fabric becomes something totally different in its outrageous second half, which involves laundry machine repairman Reg Speaks (Leo Bill) and bride-to-be Babs (Hayley Squires). During late scenes, the film knowingly veers from horror into deadpan comedy and turns into a completely different experience.
With its premise, In Fabric may not have much commercial appeal beyond the film festival circuit, which is where it has played (at dozens of festivals) since premiering in Toronto last autumn; it will only start to hit general release around the world later this year. Still, Strickland’s film is first-rate in almost every regard, but particularly in its vintage art design and cinematography (by Lady MacBeth’s Ari Wegner) and a pitch-perfect retro synth score by Cavern Of Anti-Matter.
For cinephiles seeking something different on almost every level of filmmaking, breathlessly delivered with a flair that lovingly recreates the kind of trashy Euro fare best remembered from worn VHS tapes, In Fabric is a real treat.