In Fabric | Peter Strickland | Tribeca Film Festival 2019
After first premiering at the Toronto Film Festival in 2018, the new horror film In Fabric from writer-director Peter Strickland (The Duke of Burgundy) joined the line-up at Tribeca Film Festival this past week. This is the kind of dark, twisted and, yes, bizarre film that is difficult to describe in a way that makes it sound anything like what the experience of actually watching it is actually like. But perhaps that is part of Strickland’s intention.
In the most basic terms, this is a movie about a cursed red dress. As with all good stories about haunted objects, a woman died wearing the dress, and now it is doomed to bring destruction to anyone who wears it. The dress itself serves as the audience’s vantage point into the universe of the movie, as we follow the dress’s journey from one person to the next.
Its first target is Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), an ordinary middle-aged bank teller and mother of a teenage son, whose girlfriend Gwen (played by Games of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie) is always hanging around their house. She purchases the dress to wear on a date, and from the moment she puts it on, it begins to wreak havoc on her life. What the dress does ranges from the hilarious – breaking her house when she puts in the washing machine – to the surreal, as is the way of Strickland’s universe here.
A little over halfway through the film, the dress is picked up by a new set of characters. Reg (Leo Bill) purchases it for his fiancée Babs (Hayley Squires), but first tries it on himself when he is out with his friends. This means that they both become the dress’s targets.
Though the movie is strange throughout, in the second half, it becomes increasingly difficult to follow the rules of the in-movie universe at all. Perhaps the dress itself is breaking them down? Calling the world of the movie a dystopia would not quite convey the sheer absurdity of watching it on screen for two hours. Shopkeepers take off their wigs and climb into wooden elevators at night. Mannequins are used for confusing and perverse sexual acts. Your prospective employers will ask you to roleplay fixing their machinery so that you can put them in a soothing state of hypnosis. The audience I saw it with laughed far too often for anyone to ever feel alarmed or even put off by the destruction the dress’s curse leaves in its wake.
Strickland’s film is a true masterpiece of creativity in many ways, but the threads – no pun intended – never quite come together. It feels as though he is trying to do too many things at once. On the one hand, the dress does have a complete character arc, from beginning to end. On the other, the movie throws so many different concepts and oddities at the audience, it becomes impossible to tell which ones are relevant, and which are not. Though all of the actors deliver accomplished performances – and they are the reason the film is grounded at all – the movie loses a lot of momentum in its second half because it becomes even harder to invest in anything that’s happening.
However, if you’re comfortable existing in that space in between genre, logic, and Strickland’s imagination, this is definitely worth watching, if only for the fact that it is a good time. As long as you don’t take it too seriously – and it hardly asks you to – you’ll probably enjoy the sight of a washing machine destroying a house.