In Fabric Peter Strickland (UK 2018) Gwendoline Christie, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Hayley Squires
viewed Tyneside Cinema Newcastle 2 July 2019; ticket: £10.75
In fabric in cubus
Strickland’s ‘In Fabric’ is grounded in the idea of possession. Pulling on the incubus theme Strickland’s possession comes in the form of a red dress whose unlucky wearers end up badly, i.e. dead. In horror movies it’s a familiar idea to structure a film as a series of short stories that follow a connecting strand. Strickland’s script, whilst having something of this structure breaks up the idea strands to such an extent that the film shatters into a myriad shards made up of gothic horror, voodoo ritual, social satire and consumer parody. ‘In Fabric’ travels everywhere and gets nowhere.
The scenario exploits the motif of the possessed dress that spins off into a series of comic strips that parody in the setting of a re-imagined world of 1960’s, both the developing management speak and the desire industry. Strickland might claim that his red dress is a symbolic lure, ‘In Fabric’s ‘ subject is actually the burgeoning consumerism of that era in order to satirize a force that today has come the full cycle of expression. The movie plays out those underlying elements of ‘60s management and sales techniques that have developed into the all embracing persuasive industries that possess us today.
But in pulling together his material, the dress and its associated possession themes Strickland has lost himself in a labyrinth of ideas and produced a film which haphazardly fires off in all directions, thereby losing control of any substantive content. The scenario becomes a series of walk through strips of action, characterised by scripted stings and one liners. The characters are shrunk back, reduced in stature to being mere exemplars of ideas. Sheila Babs and Reg are no more than the characters in an advert, human coat hangers whose existence is defined by the sales/morale pitch. Sheila’s role is the more nuanced but for all the greater scope of action accorded her by Strickland’s script, the leaden dialogue and the mechanics of the action reduce her to the status of cipher and she too fails to come off the hanger, a role not a character.
The structure of the scenario moving back and forth from home settings to work settings, cutting between the human situation and the becoming ideologies of management and sales turns ‘In Fabric’ into a sort of ‘Weird’ genre movie.
This idea of a ‘Weird’ genre seems a default setting for film makers whose films revolve about affect not effect. The development of ‘the Weird’, as a kind of sub genre, stems from writers such as Sherwood Anderson, painters such as Grant Wood and American comics such as the now defunct “MADD”. American Gothic in filmic terms was developed with initial inspiration by David Lynch, who used ‘The Weird’ as a dramatic atmospheric medium into which to insinuate both the fears and the reactive underlying psychic and physical violence of America. But ‘The Weird’ as genre easily degenerates into an ornamental comedic device used for its own sake as a spectacle. ‘The Weird’ gets laughs through the concatenation of the outré strangeness of characters and their milieu set against the audience’s internalised expectations of normalcy.
And this is the zone into which ‘In Fabric’ falls: as it progresses Strickland’s film becomes ‘Weird ‘ just for the sake of spectacle. The shop and the offices, and the characters in these settings are simply played out as ‘Weird’. The department store with its high priestess sales woman, becomes a repository of voodoo death rites, demonic visitations, Pythian oracular cults and kitsch dance numbers. In short it is a mess, an entanglement of ideas wrapped in an opaque suggestive wrap that in the end means nothing and leads nowhere. The scenes as they stack up come to resemble a manic pop video, an impression reinforced by Strickland’s promiscuous use of SFX. Effect is layered over effect, in a tumult of images that starts to distance the audience from the film. Strickland evidences little idea that he knows what he’s doing with his FX, but perhaps supposes that piling it on will make his picture OK.
In the office scenes as in the department store scenes the problem is Strickland locks himself into circuits of amplification whereby each cameo appearance of the characters has to top in weirdness the effect of their last appearance. But point is reached in the cycle where the scenario loses itself in an orgy of its own self indulgence.
In writing the script Strickland seems to have indulged his penchant for the ineluctable. There can be great pleasure in watching bespoke devices and designs play out to their inevitable ends. Ferreri’s ‘ La Grande Bouffe’ comes to mind. But in ‘Grande Bouffe’ everything is contained and simple and the intensifications are carefully gradated. Strickland’s uneven ragged gestures to weirdness, along with his inability to build psychic tensions into his material, produce a dull film where the characters and the underling ideas get lost in a morass of visual effects, terrible speechifying, and leaden dialogue.