For obsessive-compulsive director Peter Strickland, horror cinema is all about style — a rapturous celebration of color, sound, and texture, fetishized nearly to the point of abstraction — so it stands to reason that the eccentric auteur behind “The Duke of Burgundy” and “Berberian Sound Studio” should next turn his attention to fashion. Technically speaking, “In Fabric” isn’t about the clothing industry (although it would make a nice double bill with “Phantom Thread,” whose title it more aptly suits) but a single dress, a stunning red formal gown that plays nasty tricks on anyone who wears it.
Patterned after eye-popping giallo films of the 1970s and ’80s — that cult-beloved B-movie genre through which directors such as Dario Argento and Mario Bava crafted high-art imagery in service of less-than-coherent storytelling — “In Fabric” feels like a bespoke homage to those ultra-stylized Italian thrillers, with a wickedly arch sense of humor all its own, and a wicked other-dimensional vibe courtesy of modular synth group Cavern of Anti-Matter. What a peculiar coincidence that such a project should hit the festival circuit at more or less the same moment as Luca Guadagnino’s divisive “Suspiria” remake. For fans of Argento’s classic, about a dance academy that serves as a front for a coven of witches, “In Fabric” may well be the film they were hoping for, transposing that concept to a surreal department store.
Lured by vaguely satanic commercials announcing the January sales (for a film that questions the impulses that drive us to be obedient little capitalists, these retro-looking TV spots are the first indication that consumerism may be a form of mass hypnosis), working-class shoppers flock to Dentley & Soper’s, an elegant ready-to-wear clothing store where something is decidedly off. Embracing the artificiality of shooting on stages, Strickland seems to be asking, how oblivious — or desperate — are these women that they don’t realize they’ve stumbled into some kind of trap? And how different is that from the way we shop?
At first, “In Fabric” invites audiences to believe that Marianne Jean-Baptiste will be the film’s main character. The onetime “Secrets & Lies” star (who almost could be playing yet another Mike Leigh character) brings gravitas to the part of Sheila, a lonely-heart bank teller who’s recently separated from her husband and just venturing out into the singles scene. The film is set sometime in the 1980s, judging by Strickland’s meticulous attention to details such as an analog answering machine, a call-in personals phone service, and the take-home catalog available in the store. Funny business involving her son (Jaygann Ayeh) and his disrespectful new girlfriend (Gwendoline Christie), plus a subplot centered on her passive-aggressive gay managers at work (comedians Steve Oram and Julian Barratt), further distract from the inevitable … for Sheila has made the unfortunate decision to buy a diabolical frock from the D&S sales rack.
Caveat emptor: When selecting that perfect dress, shoppers would do well to pick out what they’d like to be buried in while they’re at it. The film never explains how Sheila’s purchase came to be cursed, or whether all the clothes sold in this godforsaken department store are similarly dangerous. Instead, it focuses on this one “artery red” robe, which singes the skin of anyone who wears it (sewn into the hem is the strange message, “You who wear me will know me”) and possesses the uncanny ability to crash cars, start fires, and crawl from room to room, or else float ominously above the bed of its next victim — all of which looks as silly as it sounds, suiting the film’s hilariously stilted sensibility just fine. There’s no reason a movie about a devil dress should work, and yet Strickland strikes the right tone, inviting laughter by taking it all so seriously.
Do the D&S salesladies realize the garment’s occult power? These out-of-place women are plenty peculiar in their own right, especially Miss Luckmoore (Strickland regular Fatma Mohamed), who speaks with a thick Slavic accent and even stranger syntax, saying things like “Dimensions and proportions transcend the prisms of our measurements” and “Did the transaction validate your paradigm of consumerism?” Although “In Fabric” doesn’t outright condemn capitalism, it’s hard to mix the statement it’s making about retail’s near-hypnotic appeal or the way it illustrates the hopes we put on a new outfit to make us into the person we want to be. It’s no coincidence that the D&S changing rooms are labeled “the transformation sphere,” and that trying on the dress is a near-ecstatic experience for Sheila.
Without giving too much away, let’s just say that she’s not the only one to appreciate what the dress can do for whoever puts it on — or to suffer what it can do to that person. After Sheila no longer has a use for it, the eye-catching outfit finds its way to a charity shop, where another buyer, washing machine repairman Reg Speaks (Leo Bill) selects it to wear to his bachelor party, later giving it to his fiancée, Babs (Hayley Squires). It’s a risky move for a film to pass the baton like this between characters, and the transitions don’t quite work (Sheila’s segment abruptly wraps with a stylish but nearly incoherent set-piece), but the overall exercise is so captivating — despite its taxingly slow pace — that audiences naturally reorient themselves to see where Strickland will take them next.
Through it all, there’s the running matter of the D&S staff, who are wonderfully bizarre in their weird after-hour rituals, raising all sorts of questions: Where does Miss Luckmoore go when the store closes, riding that dumbwaiter down toward hell? What’s the deal with the profane mannequins, and what does it mean that they are anatomically correct “down there”? Apart from being the world’s creepiest boss, what role does Mr. Lundy (Richard Bremmer) play in this strange brood of bald-headed, elaborately wigged women? And, of course, did the experience validate your paradigm of consumerism?