Making sense of Peter Strickland’s lushly realised In Fabric (2018) is a peculiarly challenging task, one that not necessarily uses the brain, but rather relies on the eye, the ear, and the skin. The film is split into two stories that do not so much interweave as graze each other like layers of tissue paper. The first follows Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a worn-out bank teller who struggles with the men in her life: her ex-husband, her son (Jaygann Ayeh), the men she meets through the newspaper’s lonely hearts column, and her two slimy bosses (played by Steve Oram and Julian Barratt) who fastidiously monitor her toilet breaks and suggest that she is not “attuned” to the company’s philosophy. Needing something to wear for one of her awkward dates, Sheila is lured into the winter sales of the Dentley & Soper department store where she is sold a red dress by Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed). But Miss Luckmoore is no ordinary saleswoman: dressed in a heavy black hoop-skirted dress – and wearing a wig reminiscent of Nicolas Roeg’s The Witches (1990) – Miss Luckmoore stalks amongst the store’s eerie mannequins, stroking their clothes with her red lacquered nails, speaking in riddles like “In a number is only the recreation of actuality. Dimensions and proportions transcend the prisons of our measurements’ in response to banal questions like ‘what size is this?’”.
Furthermore, in this film, the post-Christmas sales are literally hell, and Sheila’s dress comes with some serious baggage. Seemingly possessed, the red dress kills all who wear it, including its original catalogue model (Sidse Babett Knudsen). First Sheila breaks out in an ugly rash, and then she is attacked by a dog. As the dress increasingly takes on sentience it ripples across the floor like a satin wave, or drifts in the air like a ghost. Eventually Sheila tries to get rid of the dress at a charity shop, but she is spectacularly killed in a car accident on the way. The dress then makes its way to washing machine repairman Reg Speaks (Leo Bill), bought for him as a prank for his buck’s party before his wedding to Babs (Hayley Squires). The dress again enacts its murderous design and, in the process, burns down Dentley & Soper. The film ends with Miss Luckmoore escaping the flames in a dumbwaiter and, as it is progressively lowered, we see Sheila, Reg, and Babs fashioning more red dresses in what appears to be a sewing circle of hell.
But this brief synopsis makes the story seem quite clear and smooth, as if In Fabric’s narrative threads – so to speak – are neatly intertwined, when really the two stories are quite rough and frayed to snag (or perhaps irritate) the spectator. In Fabric raises questions in the audience that are never answered: is the department store a portal to hell, staffed by demons? How is the dress possessed, and to what purpose? Why, when Reg Speaks speaks about fixing washing machines, does he seemingly bewitch his listeners into orgasm? And what is with those strange mannequins that have plastic skin but also pubic hair and menstruate when touched? Further adding to the lack of narrative clarity is the film’s sheer sensual confusion. At times the frame is textured with mirrors that warp perspective, or layered with close-ups of skin, bodies and fabric. At another point time seems to slow, with shoppers drifting past a transfixed Sheila while a cacophony of chatter fills the soundtrack. Strickland explains that to enhance this effect, the sound designer Martin Pavey recorded “seven women, just [standing] in a semicircle in the sound studio to adlib shopping talk…which we used like music”, removing all other sounds “so the department store feels like it’s in suspension”.1
In Fabric’s narrative and aesthetic non-sense can disorientate spectators to the point where they are severed from connecting with its characters, and (quite reasonably, I might add) prevent them from understanding the film. As David Bordwell has systematically demonstrated, narrative cohesion – that is, how the plot is logically developed through chains of cause and effect, and is enacted by psychologically-developed and goal-motivated characters that are grounded in an identifiable and consistent “world” – is valued by (most) cinema audiences.2 Even those films that interrupt Hollywood’s dominant three act narrative structure and linear storytelling usually “make sense” through reflection: delayed but through the course of the film, or afterwards on our way home. But In Fabric seemingly resists any act to “make sense” of its bizarre story, troubling imagery, and discordant sound. As critic Jess Fenton has recently written, In Fabric “seems to belong to a fraternity of films that I simply cannot wrap my head around. I would so wish to see what others see here but I can’t; my imagination fails me”.3
It is with a certain irony, then, that Fenton laments that she cannot “see” In Fabric’s meaning or the value that it might hold for others, as its meaning might be located on its sleeve, in its very sensual caress. Vivian Sobchack has compellingly written that the notoriously “nonsensical” films by directors such as Terrence Malick or David Lynch nonetheless fundamentally make sense through their appeal to the spectator’s body. As she puts it, “[instead] of cognitive, reflective, and after-the-fact sense-making, they make sense – if we let them – sensuously, experientially, in the phenomenological ‘now’ of seeing, hearing, and touching (if always at a distance)”.4 That is, trying to “make sense” of the story or characters does not matter as such; rather, it is how the film appeals to the eye, the ear, the skin – the body’s matter – that matters.
In order to think through (or, more fittingly, grasp) In Fabric’s materiality, it is useful to pick up Giuliana Bruno’s approach to a film’s surface. As she puts it, the film’s “surface is… configured as an architecture: a partition that can be shared, it is explored as a primary form of habitation for the material world”.5 For Bruno, understanding how the communicative function of the film’s surface – how it can be inhabited – necessitates an approach that involves “[digging] into layers of imaging and threading through their surfaces” to expose “the actual fabrics of the visual: the surface condition, the textural manifestation” that supports the film.6
The sequence in which Miss Luckmoore bathes one of the department store’s mannequins demonstrates the intricacies of In Fabric’s visual “fabric”. Miss Luckmoore – and another bizarre saleswomen – drag a mannequin into Dentley & Soper’s storeroom. Laying the mannequin on the floor, the women slowly undress and wash its plastic skin. But just as the action of these women does not quite make sense (the women are not so much washing the mannequin in a utilitarian sense, but caressing or anointing it), so too does the visual texture of the sequence disorientate or confuse the spectator. The storeroom is filled with mirrors and reflective surfaces that multiply the (already similar) figures of the saleswomen, while the frequent use of shallow or shifting focus lends the image depth. In one shot, the women pull down the mannequin’s black underwear to reveal a thick tuft of dark pubic hair, the camera losing focus to lend a further fuzziness to the strange image.
The palpability of the image is enhanced when the store’s owner, Mr Lundy (Richard Bremmer), appears like a ghost and is framed by sheets of glass. In fact, it is not clear whether Mr Lundy is viewed through a window, or whether his face is being reflected onto one of the glass surfaces in the storeroom. One close-up of Mr Lundy’s face particularly demonstrates how the sequence’s “patterns of visual tailoring show in a material way”.7 Clearly standing out from the blackness behind him, his face – pale, with watery blue eyes and a slackened wet mouth that gawps at the women as they caress the mannequin – nonetheless seems flat and insubstantial. The camera then shifts its focus slightly to reveal that Mr Lundy’s face is not only framed by a sheet of glass, but also by the hands of other mannequins, their hard plastic skin offering a clear contrast with the spectral intangibility of Mr Lundy’s face. The uncanny effect of the sequence which troubles the distinction between human, mannequin and ghostly projection reaches its peak when Miss Luckmoore’s mannequin seemingly begins to menstruate. Mr Lundy trembles as he masturbates while Miss Luckmoore fingers the mannequin’s plastic vulva and rubs lurid red blood on her face, sucking her fingers. As he ejaculates, the camera cuts to a series of closeups of Mr Lundy’s semen as it spurts through the air in thick ropes that seem almost fluorescent against the black background.
As the camera captures these threads of semen, the soundtrack cuts to silence. This move is important as it reminds spectators how sound has a palpable surface too. Although Bruno commendably describes how “patterns of visual tailoring show in a material way” through the play of surfaces and the “visual pleating of editing”,8 she neglects how sounds can be layered – or pleated – into a textured sonic surface. Although the imagery of Miss Luckmoore bathing the mannequin is fragmented and at times unclear, the soundtrack remains full. The score’s heavy and discordant harpsichord pulses and bleats, while sparkling chimes twinkle in enchantment. Indeed, describing these sounds as “sparkling” or “twinkling” evokes the synaesthetic quality of the soundtrack that seems to glimmer and shimmer like sequinned gauze. Strickland was keen to have the sounds of In Fabric be as arresting as his strange imagery. As he explains, the film was edited to the score by Tim Gane and his band Cavern of Anti-Matter, rather than the other way around, so that the soundtrack helped shape In Fabric’s overall design. As he puts it, he learnt from working with Rachel Zeffira and Faris Badwan (of the band Cat’s Eyes) on The Duke of Burgundy (2014), where “[we] spoke about the timbre and texture of the sound, the mood and instruments… [so] I wanted to go one step further and have him produce music for me, before I even had an idea”.9
Strickland’s emphasis on sonic “texture”, and its ability to create mood and atmosphere evokes how a film’s surface holds an affective charge for spectators. As Bruno puts it, “affect is actually ‘worn’ on the surface” to become “an enveloping fabric…an extensive form of textural contact” or, even more poetically, “our second skin, our sensory cloth”.10 In light of this, Fenton’s earlier criticism that she could not “wrap her head around” the film seems beside the point. One might be able to read the film’s monstrous dress, insane department store, and tyrannical bankers as a critique of consumerism. Or, perhaps, view the film through a psychoanalytic lens to examine its use of the uncanny, the abject, or its Freudian motifs of motherhood, desire and death. But such approaches would – more than likely – prove ill-suited for the task. Indeed, it might very well be impossible to conclusively unravel In Fabric’s “meaning”. In Fabric asks us to not “read into” and make sense of what might lie beneath its surface so much as sensually and emotionally feel our way through it.
“Film itself can be said to be a form of tailoring,” says Bruno, “stitched together in strands of celluloid, woven into patterns, designed and assembled…like a customized garment”.11 Just like its cursed red dress, In Fabric somehow seems to stick to the skin, lingers in the mind, and follows us long after we leave its strange world. Its textured imagery and wild soundtrack are woven into its own kind of “fabric” that gives an unrelenting affective caress. Like the hypnotic advertisements for Dentley & Soper that Sheila watches on the television, In Fabric lures spectators in and grabs hold. Being in In Fabric’s fabric returns us of our own materiality and, in doing so, also reminds us of our embodied capacity to feel, to be moved, and to imagine.
- Interview with John Edmond, in this dossier. ↩
- David Bordwell, The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2006, p. 35. ↩
- Jess Fenton, “The Best Worst Film Ever?”, SWITCH, 25 May 2019. ↩
- Vivian Sobchack, “Stop Making Sense: Thoughts on Two Difficult Films from 2013”, Film Comment, vol. 50 no. 1, 2014, p. 51. ↩
- Giuliana Bruno, Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality, and Media University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2014, p. 3. ↩
- Ibid., p. 3. ↩
- Ibid,. p. 3. ↩
- Ibid., p, 4. ↩
- Interview with John Edmond, in this dossier. ↩
- Bruno; pp. 5, 13, 18. ↩
- Ibid. p. 35. ↩