In Fabric: An Obtuse but Engaging Giallo Riff
Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is just trying to get by. Her now ex-husband already has “a new bird,” her son is too busy with his oddly oppressive girlfriend to spend time with her, and coworkers at her bank job are complaining to management about the one time she went to the bathroom before clocking out. Lonely but resilient, she arranges a date via the personal ads and decides to buy a new dress for the occasion — not knowing that the striking red garment has a sordid history that can’t be chalked up to mere coincidence. Peter Strickland’s follow-up to 2014’s idiosyncratic romance The Duke of Burgundy, In Fabric is similarly obtuse and overlong, but nonetheless casts a spell over the viewer that makes it hard to look away even as the narrative sputters. Comparisons to the work of Italian giallo master Dario Argento (and to Argento’s Suspiria in particular) are apt, from the spectral imagery and the absurd supernatural cabal to the Goblin-esque score by synth-heavy band Cavern of Anti-Matter; Strickland is clearly having fun drawing inspiration from a certain brand of tongue-in-cheek horror here, and it shows. The energy and artistry in the first half of the film are intoxicating, with various sequences reminiscent of both peak Brian De Palma and Todd Haynes’ Carol (credit to cinematographer Ari Wegner and editor Matyas Fekete). Without revealing too much, In Fabric’s second half shifts its focus to a new protagonist and in the process loses much of the steam it had built up over the course of the preceding hour. The undercurrent of satire and social commentary that had been effectively balanced before begins to rise to the surface and threatens to overwhelm the film at the expense of both cohesion and accessibility as parallels are drawn without establishing the necessary investment in the second set of characters. But despite these missteps, the visuals remain striking, the humor pleasantly morbid, and the performances sufficiently bizarre to entice us to keep watching — and, fortunately, Strickland manages to stick the landing, treating the audience to a finale that feels satisfyingly inevitable. These final sequences are indicative of the visceral enjoyment of which In Fabric has plenty to offer, as well as the limitations of the commentary Strickland is trying to infuse. There are plenty of ideas about consumerism, sexuality, and self-image at play here, but the messages are most effective when living on the periphery; Strickland’s tendency towards a certain level of obfuscation results in a film that is much more effective when it foregrounds a cleaner narrative. But just because the substance is somewhat lacking doesn’t mean the art isn’t worth your while. Like that beautiful, ominous red dress, In Fabric is awfully stylish — and sometimes that’s all you really need.