Director Peter Strickland is known for creating strange, dreamy films that toe the line between bizarre humor and existential horror. Prior releases like 2012's Berberian Sound Studio and 2014's The Duke of Burgundy have delighted in finding the secret vulnerabilities of lonely people and taking a deeper look at what happens when their at-surface quirky interests become more and more extreme. Minor obsessions that grow rapidly more demanding until they consume everything have been the common thread between all of his movies.
In Fabric, with its focus around the role of consumerism in our modern world, is perhaps his most successful outing so far when it comes to marrying a sharp social criticism with tender remorse for the faceless victims of our society.
At face value, this film is about a killer dress. Recently single mom Sheila attempts to navigate a depressing life in which she seems to have little control. Her son tells her that his dad has already found a "new bird" and never even thought to bring it up to her. He himself has a quasi-live-in girlfriend who is rude and bullies Sheila in her own home right in front of her oblivious son. She works at a bank in which her coworkers snitch on her for long bathroom breaks, and her managers force compassion while antagonizing her at length over minor infractions. Sheila is tired, emotionally drained, disrespected, and it all makes her feel invisible.
Desperately seeking something outside of her life to give her joy, she is compelled to a local department store by bizarre, flashy advertisements. There, she purchases an "artery red" dress after being ruthlessly pressured by the enigmatic salesperson, Ms. Luckmore. Luckmore's dialogue is hilarious and profoundly quotable for anyone who has ever worked in retail. She appears all the way throughout the film in her own cryptic, surreal vignettes. Sometimes she is trying to make sales, sometimes she's behind the scenes putting herself into a box until the shop opens the next morning.
Sheila finds that the dress is becoming increasingly violent, and just as we think she's had some kind of a breakthrough in freeing herself of the garment only to have it dashed away, the narrative changes foot entirely, focusing now on washing machine repairperson Reg, who has his own drunken encounter with the dress Sheila once wore. Naturally, his life, carefully planned to be as boring and heteronormative as possible, flies entirely off the rails under the influence of the dress. While Sheila sought deeper meaning, Reg is almost infuriatingly incapable of ambition, which does not go unnoticed by his fiancee, Babs. She tries to get to the root of the problem behind the dress, and the film takes this opportunity to go fully off the rails into dream logic and surrealism.
Marianne Jean-Baptiste does an incredible job as Sheila, conveying the quiet despair of her life and somehow keeping a perfectly straight face while Fatma Mohamed's brilliant and hilarious Ms. Luckmore spouts consumerist absurdities (such as "Dimensions and proportions transcend the prisms of our measurements" and "The hesitation in your voice, soon to be an echo in the recess in the spheres of retail.") Though Reg and Babs' story is entertaining, it is Sheila's journey through the Lonely Hearts personal ads and her attempts at self-assertion that the movie finds its surprisingly heartfelt emotional center. In a film where blatant criticism of capitalism veers wildly into surrealist poetics and back into hilarious hyper-seriousness at the drop of a hat, there is no way the story would be as emotionally relevant as it feels without her.
In Fabric is not exactly subtle when it comes to its critique; this movie clearly sees capitalism as a farce that, even at its very worst, is so ridiculous that it's hard to take it seriously. This echoes our very real way of shrugging off the brutality behind consumerism, the horror of which we only become aware of all too late. Even if you're aware of its power, you can't help but laugh at its excess. Even if you see through the advertising, the advertising also sees through you. Even if you remove the dress, the dress has already made its mark.
Following seemingly disparate stories of a handful of people that are stuck in a rut built for them by the dictates of modern life, In Fabric makes a lot of salient points about the way our society so often encourages us to express our identities via objects that can be bought and sold. Our avoidance towards engaging with the substance of our own characters takes on demonic new dimensions in the form of a literal killer dress that destroys the lives of all who come into contact with it. What at first seems to be a bastion soon transforms into a curse.
The central villain of the story is a piece of cloth, an inanimate object, a fantasy given life, things that haunt our day-to-day lives but never materialize as anything more than the energy we ourselves put into them. The closer we look, the more we see the insidious truth behind the lies consumerism tells us, but as In Fabric ultimately reveals, even being aware of these traps does not ensure safe passage out of them.