With In Fabric, Peter Strickland made a movie about the terror of department stores
The 'Duke of Burgundy' filmmaker returns with a fable about a haunted dress
In Fabric is the only film you can see this year featuring a cursed dress that floats like a Halloween ghost, a mannequin-centric ritual orgy, and Gwendoline Christie as a fiendish suburban femme fatale. Bizarre and hypnotic, it’s a movie that could only come from the mind of Peter Strickland, director of 2015’s stylish, BDSM-themed drama The Duke of Burgundy.
While In Fabric been characterized as an homage to ’70s Italian horror films, Strickland didn’t write it with that intent. “This has come up!” he tells EW of the film, one of the selections at this year’s AFI Fest in Hollywood. “And I was wondering why it keeps coming up, and I think it’s because my attraction to those films is the atmosphere, the artifice, the kind of lurid color scheme which department stores certainly, in my country, had. So I guess it’s more of a production design thing, really, and to do with sound and to do with music.”
But, Strickland adds, “For me the big influence on this filmc was old British department stores, and the catalogs, and how thin the paper was, the sound it made, how glossy it was. I think in terms of influences, I guess what I was thinking of was the American sculptor Edward Kienholz — he was a huge influence. He did very uncanny mannequin sculptures. And I think the Herk Harvey film Carnival of Souls; there was a department store scene in that film. I love Italian horror — well, from the ’70s, not beyond that, really. So I don’t mind the comparison, but it wasn’t really on my mind when I was writing it.”
Instead, Strickland focused on the uncanny elements of department stores, with a story about a divorced woman (Marianne Jean-Baptise) who attempts to take advantage of a sale to buy a new dress for a date. The store in Strickland’s universe airs a mesmerizing, almost satanic commercial, and saleswomen speak in exaggerated euphemisms like deranged fortunate cookies. “What we wanted to accentuate, beyond the gothic — the sense that there might be vampires or witches — there’s always this sense that department stores are out of time somewhat,” the director says.
And while a sinister store selling a cursed dress might seem like a straightforward anticapitalist fable, Strickland says that for him, the message isn’t didactic. “I just don’t believe in doing that because I’m a hypocrite,” he says. “I’m calling you from a smartphone which probably has an element of unfair labor to it. I think we’re all part of this thing, so I don’t like wagging my finger at people. I think it’s fine to kind of playfully make someone think about, but that’s not the core of the film because I don’t see Marianne’s character as a consumist. I’m not punishing her. I think if I punish her, I’m a hypocrite. And also, I think you lose the irrational dream logic of the dress. The fear of the dress is it is random, it’s like cancer. There’s no logic to cancer.”
Attempting to describe the plot of In Fabric would either be unhelpful or outright ruinous to the experience of the film. It leaps from Office Space humor (the misery of a micromanaging boss critiquing one’s handshake; miserable dates) to bizarre sex acts and highly stylized horror. It also jumps from character to character, following a red dress along its dastardly path. “The dress was always going to go from person to person. The dress is the main character,” says Strickland. “I always had this fascination with objects. I think what started it was going to secondhand shops. You find clothes with stains on them, you find clothes which stink of body odor, you find clothes from dead people. Already, there’s a haunting. You buy a shirt, and probably someone cried having to give that shirt away because it belonged to someone they loved who died.”
A24 has acquired In Fabric for a 2019 release.