Peter Strickland is a master of visual and aural storytelling. The Duke of Burgundy is a sumptuous visual masterpiece that is light on story while Berberian Sound Studio is so intrinsically tied to its sound design that it’s built into the title.
In Fabric, the director’s latest feature, follows suit (or is it dress?). The tale of an indestructible red gown that kills its owners sounds a little ridiculous, but in Strickland’s hands, this urban legend semi-anthology is a true work of art.
Divided evenly into two separate but complementary stories, In Fabric begins with gorgeous, 70s style credits over freeze frames images from the film. The visuals then fade into the first tale about Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a recently separated wife and mother who decides to re-enter the dating scene. Upon examining her clothing options, Sheila catches a mesmerizing and heavily stylized commercial for Dentley & Soper’s department store, which is advertising an extensive post-holiday sale.
The store is fascinating: the aesthetics and catalogue both have a retro vibe and the staff are dressed like gothic Victorian vampires. They also speak in elaborately ornate ways about the clothing and its capacity to change and mold the lives of its owners. It’s a bold choice by Strickland that boldly captures the imagination, but also makes the more mundane elements pale in comparison.
After Sheila buys the gorgeous, one of a kind garment, mysterious events begin to occur. The scraping of coat hangers keep her up at night, the dress appears in unexpected places and, most spectacularly, her washing machine suffers a massive calamity when she tries to wash the dress. Then mysterious accidents begin to occur…
The second tale follows similar (albeit less successful) beats. This time it is a young engaged couple who inherit the dress. This second story is clearly informed by the first and takes place in the same world; it shares several characters, including Sheila’s comically insensitive gay bosses at the bank, as well as the sales attendants at Dentley & Soper’s. Despite building on several intriguing elements, however, the second half of the film suffers from some repetitive ennui as the vengeful dress continues to wreak havoc on new victims.
Where In Fabric shines is not its relatively straightforward plot, but rather its bold visual and auditory technical elements. Strickland and cinematographer Ari Wagner have crafted a mesmerizing cinematic experience that leaves images seared in the memory: the red dress floating suspended above a bed in the middle of the night, a mannequin caught in the headlights of a car, the violent destruction of a household appliance and the removal of a wig.
All of the film’s iconic visuals are explicitly tied into themes of sex, sexuality and gender. The association of clothes with particular lifestyles is only one example; the plot focuses on dating and marriage and there is even a recurring motif where Sheila’s bosses and the saleswoman joke or scold characters about acceptable social norms and decorum. By frequently revisiting the same ideas (at times literally repeating dialogue, interactions and plot points), In Fabric weaves a thesis that there is an inescapable inevitability to life, that characters are doomed to repeat and relive their lives, all laid out over the simple framework of a haunted dress.
In this way, the film is more successful in retrospect. It begs reflection because the payoff does not necessarily occur on an initial watch. There are a few scares and a surprising amount of comedy (credit Gwendoline Christie’s brief cameo as a vampy girlfriend), but the film’s power is after the fact: it lingers in the memory, flirts through the mind at random and leaves a lasting impression. Not unlike a certain indestructible red dress, there’s no escaping it.