Peter Strickland’s In Fabric is a visually stunning film. It borrows heavily from the Italian Giallo aesthetic. The colors are super-saturated and garnish like Dario Argento’s Susperia or Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace. The soundtrack employs a lot of synthesized harpsichord and dissonant clusters of sound like a Lucio Fulci film, and then there is that strange, ever-present sexual undercurrent that rumbles beneath all Giallo. Something voyeuristic and taboo that is more unsettling than arousing.
In Fabric was made in 2019 by A24 during their recent horror renaissance. Amidst all the blockbusters like Hereditary, Midsommar, and The Which, somehow I missed hearing about In Fabric. It is a cinephile’s dream with not just Italian horror references, but bits stolen from everything from The Shining, and Nosferatu, to Blue Velvet and even Young Frankenstein.
In Fabric deftly balances drama, horror, experimentation, and comedy in a fluid but slippery whole. Strickland manages to tip the film just over the top into parody but then pull it back before it succumbs to complete comedy. There are absurdist currents, as well as unnerving surreal elements. It’s a multi-layered film. It not only satirizes horror films but takes on consumerism, and corporate culture as well.
In Fabric has a quality reminiscent of Don Delillo’s novel White Noise. They both see humanity as in a perpetual state of pseudo-hypnosis. We are all just a little foggy as we move through a world of seductive advertisements and welcoming shops. Consumerism is forever fluffing the pillows and adjusting the lighting, trying to set the mood for consumption.
In Fabric centers around a department store where the gothic, Tim Burton-esque staff float like mythical sirens beckoning you to fulfill your dreams with retail. They are bizarre creatures that sound like a mixture of Roland Barthes, Foucault, Deepak Chopra, and a 19th-century vampire. One saleslady offers advice to a shopper who is concerned that the size of the dress she is buying is not right for her, “Our perspectives on the specters of mortality must not be compromised by an askew index of commerce.” Later the store’s owner advises a customer, “Like a whisper in an ocean, like a feather in a storm the dress of deduction finds its character in a prism of retail abstraction.”
Amidst all of this, there are choppy little montages of smiling vapid models, mannequins, and static-filled television commercials blended with a heavy sense of dread. Many of the ads seem like they come from the 1970s. Older advertisements always appear ludicrous in their blatant attempt to influence us but of course, the same dynamic still exists in current advertising. It just changes with the fashion. Adds easily become dated only because advertising companies are so sensitive and responsive to changes in our culture. Commercials are not meant to last, they are meant to take the pulse of the public at a specific time and place. Of course, the message is always the same, but the appearance changes. Mostly it comes down to two messages, “buy this and you will get sex,” for the men, and “buy this and you’ll get a husband” for the women.
The advertisements in In Fabric help fuel the sexual current in the film. In Giallo books and films, sex is part of the package to help sell the product. They all have prurient nude scenes and some include clumsy softcore sex, but even though the sex is just shoved in to sell tickets it often adds a weird Freudian subtext. Murder and supernatural forces are blended with sexual desires to produce a kind of id inspired fantasy where all our animal impulses mingle.
There is a sexual scene in In Fabric that captures this weird mix of sex, violence, and taboo. After the store closes two of the salesladies undress and wash a mannequin while their creepy boss watches them and masturbates. They peel off the mannequin’s clothes and begin to caress its erogenous zones. When finally one of the ladies slips off the mannequin’s panties she reveals that the fiberglass figure has real pubic hair. When the boss orgasms we see a close-up of something that doesn’t quite look like semen fly across the screen. Later the ejaculation will be refrained as shattering glass that sprays the face of a different mannequin. A mannequin that has appeared on a dark road in the middle of the night resulting in a car crash. It both parodies and pays homage to David Cronenberg and maybe Lucio Fulci too. It’s a wonderful bit of cinema craft nestled inside a parody of cinema craft.
There are menacing mannequin’s throughout the film. They escape the bounds of the stores and appear in people’s dreams or on in places they ought not be. They recall films like Peeping Tom, Maniac, and Tourist Trap. Staring into space they seem to ignore us and yet they simultaneously appear to solicit our interaction.
Mannequins are perfect employees. They are obedient, they never complain and they never tire but they do not belong in our world. They belong in windows sealed away from reality. When they leave that context and appear in the wrong place it is a sign that something is wrong. They become silent harbingers of doom.
The satire of corporate culture is reminiscent of The Office or Arrested Development. The workers in In Fabric are required to be completely dedicated to their job. All boundaries between the personal and professional world must be dissolved. Managers are invasive, thought police delicately encouraging their workers to completely and utterly submit to the corporate ethos. With painfully patronizing voices the administrators present saccharine, and cliche suggestions that induce everyone to fall deeper into the cycle of hypnotic capitalism. We are enveloped in a system that offers everything but also requires everything. We must relinquish ourselves into the thrall of corporations. They will guide us in our work, and reward us in our shopping.
In Fabric is a trip through a variety of cracked lenses. Each lens shows us an absurd version of the culture we have created. We manufacture culture just as we manufacture mannequins. We create idealized sculptures and sew clothing to fit them, not us. Then we starve ourselves, bind ourselves even undergo surgery to try and emulate the ideal we created. All the while the mannequins silently stare back at us, a perfect blank slate for us to project our anxieties on.
When In Fabric ends you’re not quite sure what you have watched. It’s a bit like waking from a dream. There are the images you have seen but there are also the feelings the images provoked. Sometimes we are unsure why a person or an object was frightening in a dream but you are left with the fear none-the-less. In Fabric finds its way into your head with skillful cinematography and clever editing. It opens you up with humor and then leaves a creepy residue when it’s over.
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