San Sebastian 2018 review: In Fabric (Peter Strickland)

Windows have no place in Peter Strickland’s cinema; there must be no relief valve in his oppressively constructed, curiously heterogeneous indoor worlds. The English director’s latest, In Fabric, is no exception: the vintage British comedy, the anticapitalist satire, the 70s-inspired body horror are all stuffed together, sometimes cozily and other times awkwardly, in the kaleidoscopic, funny and unpredictable story of a murderous red dress turning the already difficult lives of its owners into a positively nightmarish descent to hell.

Perhaps it is counterintuitive that Strickland’s sensorial and genre overload should be so enjoyable in the moment and yet so troubling after the viewing, when a sense of fatigue sets in and exposes some of the cracks in his storytelling. But by God, how thrilling it can be while you’re in it. In Fabric is an immensely tactile experience, unusually concerned with the allure of the body – of its volumes and of its fluids – for a film that is also, by definition, about surfaces.

It is, like Strickland’s previous works Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy, an attempt to reconcile that very duality but also about presenting new ones: Strickland’s association with the Italian roots of the giallo genre, unavoidable considering the lasting impression left by Berberian Sound Studio, has always struck me as odd since giallo is essentially an un-Italian concept; already a translated interpretation of something quite different, which in Strickland gets re-interpreted back and, with In Fabric more incisively than in previous films, contrasted with a peculiar and endearing dissection/send-off of the idea of britishness.

It starts with Marianne Jean-Baptiste’s Sheila, who for quite a while we assume to be the only protagonist of the film. She is an archetype of retro British composure, partly because of the emphasis on coping with the hardships of life (her negligent son and his openly antagonistic girlfriend; her bank-teller job and disarmingly nosy bosses; the awful dates she goes on in the hope of putting a recent divorce behind her), and maybe also as an echo of Jean-Baptiste’s role in Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies. In fact, for a second or two there, before the haunted killer dresses, the bleeding mannequins and the explosive washing machines, this could have looked like the starting point for a Leigh film.

Instead the domestic setting, stuffy and cramped and dark, and essential to Strickland’s toying with the notion of period britishness, transitions seamlessly – again, there are no windows or outsides in this world – into the often-visited store where Sheila first buys the red dress during the January sales. This is the realm of demonic, gory silliness where the esoteric sex and the comedy of consumerism meet in the strangest of genre pastiches, thanks especially to Fatma Mohamed (the authentic face of Strickland’s cinema, here in the role of a saleswoman with a vocabulary as majestic as her accent) and Richard Bremmer, whose bizarre excess beautifully plays off Jean-Baptiste’s no-nonsense skepticism.

Undoubtedly the best department-store film since Nocturama, In Fabric uses this juncture to suddenly pivot away from Sheila’s story. For all of Strickland’s visual tricks and sometimes nauseating insistence on formal flourishes, the shift might be his most impressive: sure to disappoint many for its disregard of symmetry (Sheila’s segment is longer and better set up) and basic laws of dramaturgy (it is only natural to expect a three-part structure in cases like this), it is nonetheless apt that it should feel so haphazard and tacked-on considering the genius plunge into the mundane existence of Reg Speaks, the washing machine repairman.

Like all of Strickland’s films In Fabric is consistently fun to watch even at its most disturbing, but can sometimes appear more substantial than it actually is just by virtue of the painstaking construction of everything that crosses the frame. And yet there is an undeniable audacity in its mixing of tones and genres that never feels generally derivative but always like its own thing, perhaps because the influences are so muddled in the first place.