Three movies into his career, writer/director Peter Strickland has already established a weird niche for himself as a filmmaker. Each of his features could be boiled down to a premise that describes a 1970s Eurotrash exploitation movie, but he treats them like stoic art movies with a devilish sense of humor. Following the past successes of his meta giallo (Berberian Sound Studio) and a satirical sadomasochistic sex romp (The Duke of Burgundy), he’s turned his eye to a tale of a haunted dress from a demonic department store.
Featuring an oddly bifurcated narrative, the protagonist of the film is essentially an old red gown with mysterious motivations. It’s sold through a shop that seems to run a constant sale. Fatma Mohamed runs the shop and speaks entirely in deliberately stilted sales pitch superlatives designed for awkward giggles. (She also has bloody sexy parties with anatomically correct mannequins amongst other unspeakable activities during bedtime hours.) Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) buys the dress first. She’s a lonely single mother who hopes the red beauty can get her back on the dating market until bumps, bruises, and blood start to form from the garment. Then it ends up in the hands of a nerdy washing machine repair man who slowly watches his fiancée, career, and sanity slip away.
There’s an attempt at social satire here, something related to the evils of our dependency on the empty promises of Capitalism. It’s hard to tell specifically what Strickland is trying to say and it’s unlikely there even is a cohesive thesis. The tone is deliberately absurd and obscure, in part as a sly spoof of the pretentions of ’70s genre trash and also just for creeps and giggles. The cast varies from dramatic actors playing absurdity straight to comedy veterans (including Julian Barratt from The Mighty Boosh) playing the gags for oddball disturbance. It’s a unique tone that Strickland has mastered at this point. His movies aren’t for everyone. You either appreciate his detached arty take on old-fashioned sleaze or you end up confused and possibly even bored.
Stickland likes to take his time, both for atmosphere and cringe comedy. It can feel intoxicatingly off-kilter or punishingly dull, often in the same scene. The cinematic craft on display, from the retro production design to the woozy soundscape and floating camerawork, feel like the fever dream of a nerd who has seen too many movies and eaten the wrong meal. At best, it’s hypnotic. At worst, it’s a little boring, especially when the filmmaker switches from one plot to another halfway through and the movie starts to feels like sitting through a full feature and its sequel in an unexpected double bill.
In Fabric isn’t Strickland’s best, but it might be his most polished. He’s getting better at what he does, but if the filmmaker can’t figure out a second or third trick to add to his cinematic arsenal soon, his artistically ambitious joke is going to get real old real quick.