“Even when it doesn’t quite bring everything together under its considerable ambition, it’s still fascinating, engaging, and spellbinding to take in.”
by Ken Bakely
There’s something to be said about the astonishing duel of simplicities and complexities within the scripting of Peter Strickland’s In Fabric. The core element of the film is a coveted, deep red (“artery red,” to use the film’s parlance) dress from a popular and mystifying department store that has some kind of grim supernatural component, leaving a trail of death and destruction upon everyone who wears it. The dress essentially functions as part of a critical reflection on consumerist culture and capitalist production that is often abstract, but never unclear. Yet, through this straightforward throughline, the film adopts a meandering and dissected structure, growing more knowingly cluttered and chaotic as it goes on. The effect between the two is not always successful, but it’s hard to deny Strickland’s ability to create arresting, stylized art with great aesthetic command. And, while the dress is the unifying component that affects all of the characters, there is a basic network of plotting, which begins with Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a divorced, single mother working as a bank teller, who first buys the dress to wear on a date. The strange events commence almost immediately, as the dress begins to move around the house (this is nothing alarming at first, as she initially suspects her son’s girlfriend of swiping it), and, when placed in the washer, it causes the machine to violently fall to pieces mid-cycle. It’s individual moments like these – where, the more we learn about the dress and where it comes from, the less we understand – that make the film’s core, presenting slews of eccentricity and surrealism. The effect can be slight or overwhelming, perhaps all in one scene.
In essence, the point of all this is far beyond trying to extrapolate some singular explanation for how all of this fits in with each other. After all, in a testament to the film’s extraordinarily busy nature, there’s also a secondary plotline about Reg (Leo Bill), a hapless repairman who comes into contact with the dress, who also has mild telekinetic abilities which are almost throwaways. In Fabric is perhaps most defined by the feeling of watching everything chaotically unfold, as Strickland guides the film with his sly sense of humor with his visual command, alongside Ari Wegner’s vivid cinematography. Jean-Baptise and Bill both deliver very good performances, as characters who reflect the different sides of how the dress slowly wreaks havoc in their already difficult lives; and, for a film that’s so dedicated to a criticism of the capitalist mindset writ large, it can’t be coincidental that they’re both working-class people in jobs where they are constantly undervalued and reminded of their lack of autonomy. Then again, nothing in the movie looms more prominently than that dress, available from a store with the allure to work their customers into anarchic trances at will, and drawing its power from some alternate dimension in its own right (while discussing the store, special mention must be given to Fahtma Mohamed, who is greatly unnerving as Miss Luckmore, the saleswoman who first sells the dress to Sheila).
There’s little else I could say about In Fabric to accurately sum things up than by emphasizing that there’s a lot going on here; not only in terms of the plotting and subtext, but in the carefully overwhelming production design, the droning and ominous score, and the delicately uneasy feeling that captivates the viewer from the start and doesn’t let go. Perhaps there’s sometimes a little too much going on, with Strickland’s seemingly endless well of ideas leading to some feeling underdeveloped. But, in a testament to his capabilities as a filmmaker, he never loses sight of where to go, or what direction to take things in. The movie is always well-handled, and it explores its overriding themes and concepts thoughtfully, letting us get lost in its peculiar logic and shocking developments. Through the film’s underlying commentary, always close to the forefront, we appreciate the greater magnitude of what Strickland seeks to accomplish here as a whole, and mostly succeeds in doing. This is an accomplished work: bold and startling, effective and polished in equal measure. And even when it doesn’t quite bring everything together under its considerable ambition, it’s still fascinating, engaging, and spellbinding to take in.