In Fabric (2019)
Mateo Keegan Burbano
6 October 2019
I was lucky enough to catch a preview showing of In Fabric during Arthouse Cinema Day at the Normal Theater, ahead of its wide U.S. release on December 6th. In Fabric is directed by Peter Strickland, director of Berberian Sound Studio (2012) and is a joint production of A24 and BBC Studios. If you’re a fan of off kilter, thought provoking horror, then you must catch this beautiful, hilarious film on the big screen.
Imagine a film about the witch coven from Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) staffing a frock shop in Thames Valley, in which an anthropomorphized, cursed red dress operates in a similar fashion to the murderous tire from Rubber (2010), directed with Lynchian moments of traumatic dissociation, punctuated by Pythonesque absurdism, and you’re about 50% on the way to understanding the type of film In Fabric is. The film is split into two overlapping stories, tracking the destruction caused to anyone who crosses paths with a cursed red dress.
The first half of the film follows Sheila, played with amazing earnestness by Marianne Jean-Baptiste, a woman in her fifties, recently separated mother of a teenage boy, who works as a bank teller. The second half of the film follows Clive, played to everyman perfection by Steve Oram. The film is rounded out by an amazing supporting cast. Sidse Babett Knudsen plays the model who first wears the malevolent dress for a catalogue photo shoot and is killed in a zebra-crossing before the film even starts. Julian Barrett of The Mighty Boosh fame, plays Stash, one of Sheila’s branch managers obsessed with absurdist management styles like dream analysis. Game of Thrones fans will love Gwendoline Christie’s role in the film. She plays the vamping, sadistic older woman, Gwen, who is having an affair with Sheila’s teenage son.
The film is hyper-stylized. Frames are awash in vibrant, deep reds: red paint, red fabrics, red painted fingernails, all foretelling the bloodletting to come under the dress’s malicious influence. There are eerie scenes of intense focus on a characters’ illuminated faces as discordant music jangles in the background. One disturbing scene, involving the pleasuring of an anatomically correct female mannequin’s menstruating vagina, will have you laughing despite your repulsion.
In Fabric has plenty of frightening moments, but the film also has plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. Clive, a washer repair man who only wants to provide a comfortable life for his fiancé and himself, has the special ability to send anyone within earshot into near erotic euphoria as he lists all the possible disruptions to a washing machine’s inner workings. Sheila’s bosses give her a dressing down over the efficacy of her handshake and keep trying to get her to participate in workplace role playing scenarios, costumes included. The film’s absurdist moments are rooted in real corporate management and consumer manipulation philosophies, so the film never completely breaks from credulity.
The film takes place in an unspecified everytime that is both current and retro. The location is only ever called Thames, so the film could take place anywhere from a large city to London, to some midsized city in the heart of England. What’s familiar is its High Street with its frock shop, Oxfam-like secondhand store, its regional bank branch, and the restaurant that serves everything from a vindaloo to a nice bit of fish. This is Everytown England, populated with its everymen and everywomen who just want to make their lives easier for themselves and their loved ones, and to feel a genuine connection to another person.
Sheila and Clive, and those closest to them, all meet bloodied, dreadful ends. Despite the inevitability of their fates, director Strickland treats his characters with a genuine tenderness and respect you’d expect from a more understated indie drama. The lives led by the film’s characters could be judged as small and sad by some. Sheila is struggling with her recent marital separation and the weight of responsibility for a son who is on the verge of adulthood. The isolation and loneliness Sheila feels are exasperated by having to hear her son bang whichever random witchy goth girls he’s brought home that day.
Clive is anxious about his impending wedding. His friends, and even his fiancé’s father, endlessly roast him for marrying the same dominating woman he’s dated since secondary school, the only sexual partner he’s ever had. Clive doesn’t care; all he worries about is providing a comfortable life for his wife-to-be. Both of these characters lives may seem pedestrian and meaningless to some viewers but, to Sheila and Clive, it’s the only lives they’ve ever known, and their lives are precious to them. Unlike many horror films, the tragic violent ends these characters meet have impact because you grow to care for these characters as people.
In Fabric makes a number of pointed critiques of modern culture, including the validness of fashion, the cruelty of corporate management styles based on unfounded pop psychology that seek to dehumanize employees into commodities, and the insidiousness of inescapable advertising. These themes are woven throughout the film, but Strickland never loses focus on the significance of the film’s main characters everyday struggles. In Fabric asks viewers, when selecting a shiny dress or swanky blazer off the rack of a department store or secondhand shop, to consider the history already imbued in that piece of fabric. Whose hands guided the fabric under a sewing machine needle? Who dressed the mannequin that first caught our eye? Who has already modeled or worn that item of clothing, and what kind of life have they led? The film asks you to do more than just consider the cycle a product makes from creation to shelf to purchase, it asks us to reconsider all the infinitesimal small, unseen ways we might be connected to each other.
5 out of 5 Menstruating Mannequins
In Fabric is released 6 December 2019 in the U.S.