Sydney Film Festival Review: In Fabric (2018)

To the individual consumer, fashion is something that is often specific to their desires, but in Peter Strickland’s off-the-wall dark comedy/horror In Fabric, fashion – specifically a blood red gown with a plunging neckline – appears to have a specific desire for its consumer.

Danger is indeed in the details, and in a similar fashion to seemingly immortal genre counterparts Michael Myers and Jason Vorhees, In Fabric‘s central red dress appears intent on dispatching anyone who comes into close contact with it, ready to renew itself with every attempt to cease its carnage.

If it all sounds rather bizarre, well, that’s because it is, and writer/director Strickland (following up his sadomasochistic romance The Duke of Burgundy) makes no apologies, nor delves particularly deep into the reasoning behind the inexplicable nature of the dreaded dress; audiences hoping for an eventual answer as to what they’ve witnessed will be sorely disappointed.

The dress’s first victim is single mother Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a woman whose life is riddled with frustration.  At work, her every move appears to be under the constant eye of a duo of disarming supervisors.  At home, her adult son (Jaygann Ayeh) treats her like a servant, whilst his older “model” of a girlfriend (a wonderfully dry Gwendoline Christie) belittles her at every opportunity.  Learning that her ex-husband has moved on proves to be the last straw, and in dipping her toe back into the dating pool Sheila hopes her freshly purchased red gown will attract an appropriate suitor.

Bought on sale at the off-kilter department store Dentley & Soper, it’s evident from the very moment we’re “welcomed” through the store doors that something is very off about this particular business; the advertisements are an unsettling yet hypnotising montage of neon colour and distressed mannequins, the staff all dress in a series of Victorian gowns fit for a camp Parisian funeral, and head clerk Miss Luckmoore (the delightfully bonkers Fatma Mohamed) speaks in a peculiar poetic tongue that suggests working in retail is a black art in itself (“The hesitation in your voice soon to be an echo in the recesses of the spheres of retail” she so sternly tells the indecisive Sheila).

Though the fleeting sequences of Miss Luckmoore lowering herself to an undisclosed location in a dumbwaiter or fondling a merkin-attired mannequin to the point that it leaks menstrual blood (by far In Fabric‘s most confronting moment) suggest Strickland’s story will reveal the administrator behind the insanity, the film appears more comfortable to just revel in its own madness, assuming the viewer will embrace this mentality also.

As much as In Fabric toys with the story beats of a glorious B-movie (the dress oft is seen slithering under the cracks of doors on its own accord), and Strickland’s sense of humour isn’t lost on the material either, it’s ultimately an homage to the giallo films gone by, with a deliberately testing pace and splurge of colour that brings instantly to mind Dario Argento’s Suspiria.

But for all of In Fabric‘s strengths – the bold imagery and kinetic audio cues are enough to engulf any viewer – Strickland’s need to extend the dress’s macabre mindset beyond Sheila proves its biggest misguidance.  Jean-Baptiste is so inherently likeable that we genuinely care as to what will befall her, and when the story opts to abruptly end her suffering and switch its narrative to a doormat handyman (Leo Bill) and his domineering fiancee (Hayley Squires), we unfortunately are ready for a refund on our purchase.

That being said, a narrative stumble doesn’t take away the fact that In Fabric is at once fascinatingly amusing and unsettling, somehow managing to create something unique out of elements the genre has weaved together before.

In Fabric is screening as part of the 2019 Sydney Film Festival (June 5th – 16th).  Session times and festival information can be found here.

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