In Fabric: Dress to Kill, by David Bax
Among the many strange and dark delights offered by Peter Strickland’s In Fabric, perhaps the most memorable are the sales clerks. Nearly identical, like the women in Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” video or Cloud Atlas‘s cafe slaves, but more glamorous and devout than both, these statuesque clerics of retail, led by Fatma Mohamed’s Miss Luckmoore, are ecstatic yet lugubrious, poetical even while speaking a kind of secondhand, machine-learned version of the English language. They are, at once, beautiful, scary and kind of funny, which is a pretty good description of In Fabric as a whole.
To put it glibly, In Fabric is a killer dress movie, the way that Christine is a killer car movie. Sheila (Marianna Jean-Baptiste), a divorced bank teller, hits up a department store sale where Miss Luckmoore talks her into buying a red dress for an upcoming first date. The garment first gives her a rash, then destroys a washing machine, then starts–in lieu of a better term–cozying up to Sheila’s son’s girlfriend, Gwen (Gwendoline Christie), before eventually becoming more overtly threatening, not just to Sheila and company but to washing machine repairman Reg (Leo Bill) and his wife Babs (Hayley Squires) as well.
Ascribing that much power to an inanimate object is the literal textbook definition of a fetish. In Fabric follows suit (or dress, as it were) by also adhering to the colloquial connotations of the word. Sex defines the characters, from Sheila’s lack of it to the nude sketches her son, Vince (Jaygann Ayeh), makes of Gwen and, in particular, her vagina. The production design, costume design and cinematography are fetishistic as well, with close-ups and details that highlight tactility.
Frankly, none of this would work if it weren’t funny. To be sure, it’s an uncommonly dry comedy, befitting the straight-faced absurdity of the plot–for instance, the dress’s color is listed in the store’s catalog as “Artery”–but it makes the far-fetched premise go down easier.
Obviously, there are metaphors and allegories at work here but In Fabric is not the kind of moralistic fable so often seen in the horror genre. In a more obvious telling, the dress would first make Sheila’s life a fantasy before punishing her for her vanity. Nothing like that happens here; the date for which she buys the dress ends up mundane and disappointing.
Strickland’s themes aren’t exactly deeper or more complex than that but they are expressed with an unwavering commitment. In Fabric is a satire of totalitarian capitalism, the kind of world in which Sheila’s bosses (Julian Barratt and Steve Oram, hilarious) are free to concern themselves not just with her job performance but with her eating and bathroom habits and the content of her dreams. In such a world, where becoming a exemplary consumer is the most desirable state, materialism and orgasm are as linked as orgasm and death.