In Fabric. 2019. Directed & Written by Peter Strickland.
Starring Sidse Babett Knudsen, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Julian Barratt, Steve Oram, Jaygann Ayeh, Richard Bremmer, & Gwendoline Christie.
BFI Film Fund / BBC Films / Rook Films / A24
Rated 18A (Canada) / 118 minutes
Dark Comedy / Horror
After I saw Peter Strickland’s Katalin Varga, it was guaranteed the filmmaker would forever be a favourite. Then he offered up Berberian Sound Studio, and after that the inimitable The Duke of Burgundy, one of the greatest films of its decade. Most recently, Strickland gave life to another gorgeously odd, mysterious creation: In Fabric.
The tale of a lonely bank clerk, Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), intertwines with that of a mysterious shopkeeper called Jill (Sidse Babett Knudsen) in a luxurious department store, as well as that of washing repair man Reg (Leo Bill) and his fiancee Babs (Hayley Squires). They’re all connected by a ghostly red dress, which seems to work its way fatally through the lives of people with whom it makes contact.
Is the dress possessed?
Have the devilish powers of capitalism and consumerism given it horrific life?
In Fabric‘s themes are a delicious mix of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, riffing on the way commerce/material objects become fetishised via comedic and horrific Uncanny imagery. Strickland brings us into a Gothic world haunted by capitalism, where dresses move like ghosts and the babble of a washing machine repair man acts as a kind of erotic hypnosis, a world in which lonely hearts seek other lonely hearts by selling themselves in magazine ads, not unlike models selling a garment in a catalogue.
An early aspect of the screenplay, that quickly injects comedy into the film, is how Strickland jumps cleverly on the tedium of capitalism. For instance, not long after we first meet Sheila, we also meet her bosses— an excellently vibrant and ridiculous Julian Barratt as Stash alongside delightfully deadpan Steve Oram as Clive— who get down to the banal brass tacks of their bank’s policies. They have various concerns, such Sheila’s handshake, fearing it’s “not meaningful” enough to convey the company’s ethos, or Sheila taking what they believe is too many, ultimately inconsequential bathroom breaks, acting concerned for her health when they’re only concerned about profit. Stash and Clive micromanage their employees with poor, dry wit and a cheesy smile that’s delightfully at home here.
In Fabric moves from the tedium of capitalism to its fetishisation. This is evident through the screenplay’s language, employed by Jill and the manager, Mr. Lundy (Richard Bremmer). The selling of a dress is referred to as “a transaction of ecstasy” and a “prestigious consumerist festivity.” Lundy specifically mentions that to shop at Dentley and Soper there’s a “required pedigree of shopping” expected in its customers. For both shopkeeper and manager the “doctrine of the store” is treated as religious doctrine.
Unsettling capitalist fetish is seen in Reg, who works for the aptly named Slaverton’s Wash. Reg repeats his memorised babble about washing machine repair and all but hypnotises a woman, bordering on eroticism. It’s creepiest later when bank managers Stash and Clive request to hear Reg reel off his memorised lines, going into a quasi-orgasmic state of being while they listen eagerly. This strange reoccurring moment is where Strickland deftly nails commodity fetishism, during which the erotic takes on a decidedly capitalist form.
In light of reoccurring moments, In Fabric likewise makes good use of Freud’s Uncanny. The repetitive, hypnotic commercial for Dentley and Soper is a prominent image seen several times, and within the commercial itself there’s the repeated group ‘come hither’ of Lundy and his shopkeepers, all calling out silently to their customers while trippy music loops in the background— they repeat this gesture in front of actual customers before their doors open in the morning. Jill mirrors a mannequin with her bald head hidden beneath the wig, appearing as its double and vice versa. Surreal lines blur to a point we’re unsure whether the mannequin’s alive or if Jill’s an anthropomorphic mannequin herself. My favourite moment of the Uncanny comes in Sheila’s recounting of her dream: she appears as her dead, rotting mother wearing a dress, and the dress appears as the red one she’s worn herself. All of this nightmarish imagery from Sheila’s unconscious is a perfect moment of the Freudian Uncanny with double-doubles plaguing her dreams.
“Imagine the dress is your image…”
There are several ways the Gothic figures into Strickland’s film. One of the important Gothic symbols is the department store, Dentley and Soper. The store becomes akin to an old spooky mansion hiding secrets beneath it— an antiquated, curious system of finance, as well as other eerie things— and, upstairs, the unsettling shopkeeper Jill watches over customers waiting to get in from a large window at the building’s peak like a mysterious recluse from an 18th-century novel.
The aforementioned red dress is a hugely important symbol of the Gothic. It acts as a ghost, literally floating around to haunt people, a terrifying and simultaneously hilarious spectre. The dress takes on supernatural qualities most noticeably in its destructive power, after Sheila tries to run it through the wash and it absolutely destroys her machine. It leaves a mark on people via a rash— corporeal metaphor for the way consumerism poisons people, withering them physically. The dress, a material object, likewise reduces those who wear it to a ghostly state, or, in Sheila’s case, helps lead them to their death. Most importantly, in the final sequence, the ghost takes on qualities of Bertha Mason from Jane Eyre, setting the department store on fire, nearly causing a massacre.
A major theme running throughout In Fabric is the toxic way capitalism destroys us as individuals, specifically in relation to the body and individual identity. The world of fashion specifically, by way of the red dress, is Strickland’s method of situating capitalism’s most devious effects as being those on the body/self. At the start, it’s the rash the dress leaves on people which presents a highly literal image of capitalism’s destruction. Strickland best explores the way capitalism reduces us to bodily capital initially through Sheila, then later Jill.
A telling pair of shots illustrates this capitalist reduction of the body/self. The first is Sheila cutting up photo booth pictures of herself to display in her personal ad, and the second is when Babs recounts her dream to Jill and the same type of shot reoccurs, but it’s Babs’s image cut in half out of a catalogue. Here, Strickland focuses on the buying/selling of the body and self. Sheila’s selling herself, albeit for romance, just like the models in the catalogues. Love becomes another capitalist transaction, no different from buying a commodity like a dress, reduced from the exchange of feelings to the exchange of money. This is also reflected in the newspaper dating service: each dater is reduced to a number, referring to each other by the numbers on their receiving box. Strickland depicts how the language of capitalism invades all areas of modern life.
Yet the creepiest image collapsing the body/identity into a tool of capitalism is the skin crawling ambiguity between Jill and the mannequin. There’s the bald head and the lipstick, as seen below. Then there’s the second one below with an explicit image of capitalism’s negative transformation of the, specifically, female body: the mannequin appears as corporeal with hair around its fleshy, bleeding vagina. In this scene, Jill and another shopkeeper touch the mannequin all over while Mr. Lundy watches nearby, masturbating himself in a mix of ecstasy and horror— a disgusting consumerist orgy.
“You who wear me
will know me”
In Fabric is one of my all-time favourite films. It’s a hybrid of horror and comedy that takes its satire quite seriously underneath. Strickland is always at work with gorgeous images. His horror films are all clearly giallo-inspired, this one surely wearing that influence with the most pride. The dress plays ghost most of the time, also managing to feel like a slick giallo murderer slipping in and out of the ether to claim victims in fashionable, gruesome sequences. And, at all times, the spectre of capitalism is what haunts the audience, withering us away to spectres ourselves.
What makes this work so well as Gothic allegory, apart from just being one hell of a cracking film in a general sense, is noticeable through how Strickland lines up all the elements necessary for a critique of capitalist/consumerist culture while never looking to beat us over the head with a message. All the implications are there, more or less obvious. Neither the imagery nor the screenplay rub our noses in it.
In Fabric haunts my mind. Every now and then, one of the film’s images— like the dress on its ghostly mission— floats out of my unconscious and lands in a conscious space where the allegory gets a little more real, a bit clearer. Now, whenever I pick up a new item of clothing to potentially buy I often find myself wondering: who gave up what parts of themselves to make it, and just how much of myself will I lose to buy it?