Peter Strickland’s breakthrough film, Berberian Sound Studio, was a chilly horror masterpiece, playing with form and fear to make us question what we thought we knew about filmmaking. His follow-up, The Duke Of Burgundy, was an equally stunning, if near-impenetrable, non-narrative lesbian romance — with butterflies. In Fabric takes elements from both to make something just as odd and intriguing — this time, adding a filthier sense of humour. It’s a muscle Strickland’s only occasionally flexed before, but here it’s in full force, a dry, daft wit that reveals itself in surprising ways, from the bonkers premise onwards.
Like his previous work, the film works at one level as a pastiche of ’70s/’80s genre exploitation films, with period-appropriate title sequences and retro-inflected soundtracks. So physical you could almost touch it, the highly stylised lens of cinematographer Ari Wegner makes everything feel like a hyperreal fantasy. This is a film where the dresses, nail varnish, lipstick and blood all share the same feverish, lurid hue of red.
Peter Strickland’s script is full of striking, unsettling diversions.
Much of this in keeping with the giallo horrors that emerged from Italy in the 1970s, Strickland’s favourite sandpit. (In Fabric has more in common with Dario Argento’s Suspiria than the recent remake did.) But while it owes a debt to the Italian genre specialists, it feels like a distinctly British concoction. Strickland — who grew up in Reading, and set his film in ‘Thames-Valley-on-Thames’ — finds comedy in the grim mundanities of Thatcher’s Britain, the deep ordinariness of a country in an identity crisis. Some of the jokes are so subtle and rich that it feels hard to know if non-Brits would fully appreciate them — from the archaic tradition of a mum answering the phone by announcing the full phone number, to the toxic awfulness of a lads’ night out.
Yet, as well observed as the comedy is, it’s even more effective when it surprises, and Strickland’s script is full of striking, unsettling diversions. Some dialogue is delivered in a drab, deliberately stilted manner (there’s extraordinary work in this vein from Jean-Baptiste, in arguably her best role since Secrets & Lies); sometimes it’s so boring, it sends other characters into an erotic reverie; elsewhere, it’s gloriously grandiloquent, as with the witching shop assistants (“The hesitation in your voice, soon to be an echo in the recesses of the spheres of retail”). It’s in the harmony of horror, comedy and eroticism that In Fabric really sings — never more so than in a startling scene involving a menstruating mannequin and a masturbating elderly man.
Scenes like that are why it emphatically won’t be for everyone. But there is more to dissect here than just wanking old men. Beneath its sensual folds, there’s a sly satire on the obsession of consumer culture and the emptiness of living a lonely life in the suburbs. Watch it at midnight, in a seedy fleapit, for full effect.