Peter Strickland might just be fucking with us. Every feature that he has made since (and including) the breakthrough Berberian Sound Studio is a world constructed by a prankster – full of dead ends, unexpected turns, and a sense of humour both whimsical and deeply malignant.
His latest In Fabric is easy to summarise on the surface – a cursed red dress leads to misfortune for those who wear it – but with that jumping off point it leads down a deep rabbit hole of identity and belonging, marked by Strickland’s distinct love of the look and feel of moody 1960s and 1970s works like Antonioni’s Blow-Up or Roeg’s Performance.
Speaking at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in late 2019, Strickland said that the film was inspired by “the Christmas sales” – a statement that could have seemed glib if he didn’t deliver it with such straight-faced sincerity. Indeed, it’s the Christmas sales where single mum Sheila (a marvelous-as-usual Marianne Jean-Baptiste) finds the cursed red dress, and is convinced to buy it by a sphynx-like shop assistant Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed) who speaks in riddles.
The ever present image of bald and disrobed shop mannequins collides with the vulnerability of characters as they undress, expose themselves or transgress through crossdressing. In Fabric does not go anywhere you would expect a horror movie with such a simple premise to go, but it keeps the audience engaged with its bizarre sense of humour and the sensual, eerie way that the apparently sentient dress moves.
In Fabric appears to be a commentary on the way clothes, and the images we’re constantly sold as the ideal we should strive for, constrict our identities – in terms of race, age, body shape and gender. Sinister forces sink their teeth into each person who comes into contact with the dress in ways that seem to come not only from the dress, but from within themselves and from the people around them.
But In Fabric is never heavy-handed or obvious. It’s subversive and playful where in another filmmaker’s hands it may have been bludgeoning. In some scenes it takes mundanity to the point of absurdity, while in its most shocking moments it’s delivered with superb drollness.
Widely divergent yet deeply memorable in every way, In Fabric may be Strickland’s masterpiece, and one of the most original horror movies of the decade. Its final sequence is devastating, and possibly the closest Strickland has come to out-and-out social commentary in any of his features.
Of course, that’s probably not how he would describe it. He seems content to let each of his films exist with little more than a few wry comments on his behalf. Even if he is fucking with us – in fact because it’s hard to gauge the sincerity of his films – it’s a thrill to see his morose, sensual, yet distinctly amused and absurd image of the world.