When was the last time you saw a colored pencil drawing of a village worshiping Gwendolyn Christie’s anus? Exactly. You haven’t. Peter Strickland doesn’t make movies you’ve seen before. He writes and directs films that breach new creative territory. He is the epitome of a singularity in modern filmmaking. And that’s saying a lot for someone who doesn’t have numbers on his side. Strickland’s films don’t have towering budgets, major stars, wide distribution, or significant box office returns. Luckily for us, he keeps getting fresh screenplays financed and produced. It’s an anomaly worth celebrating.
For those unfamiliar with Strickland, it’s nearly impossible to relate him to other filmmakers. The only director that creates an unforgettable high-art cinematic experience as ornately unnerving, unpredictable, inexplicable, and magnificent as Strickland is Lucile Hadžihalilović (Innocence, Evolution). And that’s not to say their films are similar; instead, they exist on the same plane of originality and artistry others with their minds haven’t been able to achieve at such a level.
Strickland’s latest, In Fabric, is yet another affirmation of his undying loyalty to established mastery in tone, style, mood, pacing, and narrative experimentation. It holds close to the most prominent themes of Strickland’s previous three features (Katalin Varga, Berberian Sound Studio, and The Duke of Burgundy)—strange terrors, hushed vulgarities, frantic mysteries, eccentric sensuality/sexuality—this time in the realm of British fashion. After playing at over 30 festivals, including one in Brooklyn, the film finally landed in Manhattan for the 18th annual Tribeca Film Festival.
In Fabric is two stories in one, bound by the continuity of an eerie, possessed red dress purchased at Dentley & Sopar’s department store during a winter sale. The first follows Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a divorced mother living modestly with her older son Vince (Jaygann Ayeh)—an agitated, impatient sketch artist—and his edgy, punk girlfriend Gwen (Gwendoline Christie), whose jet-black hair matches her wear like it matches her demeanor. After Sheila’s journey with the dress, we move on to the second story, which follows working-class washing machine mechanic Reg Speaks (Leo Bill) and his 14-year girlfriend recently turned fiancé, Babs (Hayley Squires).
Dentley and Sopar’s is that brand of posh British shopping that lavishes you with items like a “stately pair of Carpathian stockings” or a “cinnamon bra.” The store’s chief supervisor, Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed), speaks to her customers in regal, spooky, metaphysical poetics about late-capitalism and the body. She responds to casual concerns about size with comments like, “Dimensions and proportions transcend the prisms of our measurements,” and caps off purchases with questions like “Did the transaction validate your paradigm of consumerism?” Her tone couldn’t be graver, yet it’s clearly meant to be funny.
The comedic language and silly camp vibes of In Fabric set the movie apart from his others, which wring out occasional laughs but are more focused on engulfing you in their portentous moods. However, Strickland doesn’t sacrifice plaintive haunts for comedy. Instead, he combines the two, nearly every moment soaked to the center with his austere variety of dark, creepy, bone-dry humor, no matter how enigmatic and/or revolting. Sometimes it comes in the form of a baby flipping the bird at the camera or a conversation about wedding invites during some uninspired sex. A pair of recurring bosses mysteriously shared by Sheila and Reg—perhaps as a metaphor for mass corporate invasion—deliver some of the film’s most hysterical moments. On one occasion, they express genuine worries over the lack of meaning in Sheila’s handshake. On another, they beg Reg to role-play a scenario in which he must describe what’s wrong with a washing machine in hopes that they’ll reach nirvana or at least orgasm.
As should be expected, bizarre sexuality is laced in throughout to jarring effect. A mannequin with vaginal bleeding is fondled by Miss Luckmoore during a witch-like ceremony behind closed doors while an old man—a sinister wizard behind the curtain at Dentley & Sopar’s—watches along behind a glass pane, feverishly masturbating, until the camera isolates his ejaculate flying through the air in a series of close-ups (which were met with uproarious laughter from the people in my theatre, as intended, I’m sure). As if a dead silent scene of Vince performing oral sex on Gwen isn’t provocative enough on its own, we witness it through the keyhole peered into by Sheila’s curious, voyeuristic eye. And those are merely two of many shadowy sexual moments that play out over the 118 minutes.
The frenzied editing is spectacular in the way it splices in grainy retro film photography stills to attain a sense of looming dread draped with the sounds of phantasmagorical harpsichords that would typically thematize the introduction of a mad scientist-type villain. Beneath the harpsichords, the score is underpinned with retrofuture synth pads that laminate the movie in an 80s TV promo aesthetic. There is a D&S winter sale ad, which hypnotizes its viewers into a zombie-like state of consumerism, that makes this aesthetic as literal as it is thematic. Outside of the score, the texture of supervenient sounds is visceral, onomatopoeic—crashing, boinging, and echoing like the creaky springs and hinges that lurk in haunted spaces.
Imagine the menacing giallo stylings of Suspiria in the lush setting of Phantom Thread (complete with inscriptions sewn into designer British clothing and dimly lit lounges adorned in luxurious velvet) peppered with the peculiar still photography of La Jeteé and the cryptic cognition of Buñuel’s most mature work. Needless to say, it’s a treat, and one that is better left without intricate plot details revealed, despite being hard enough to understand once they are.
With In Fabric, as with all of Strickland work’s, you enter a nightmarish sphere of transformation—both literally and metaphorically—that you won’t be comfortable with. Moreover, his work is teeming with commentary ripe for interpretation. Various characters talk about their lives in terms of “sleeping dreams,” as if to suggest an alternative to the waking dreams they live, which are laden with an infused desire to consume, as a capitalist socio-economic structure would hope. Perhaps Strickland is making one overarching point throughout his career—the point that change, transformation, true originality, the unknown, etc. is always uncomfortable and strange. Or perhaps he’s just an odd perfectionist storyteller with a sharp mind and a propensity toward the craft of filmmaking. Either way, he’s a singular breath of fresh air for us all.