A Fortnightly Review
Written and directed by Peter Strickland
By SIMON COLLINGS.
IN HIS LATEST film, In Fabric, British director Peter Strickland takes as his starting point the familiar clichés of the horror movie. He has a penchant for ‘bad’ films. Genre cinema, including giallo thrillers, sexploitation movies, and erotica, have been important influences in previous work. The new film revolves around a haunted red dress. Sheila works as a bank clerk. She’s a single mum, separated from her husband and raising their teenage son Vince. She’s looking for a new relationship, through the lonely hearts ads in the local paper, and buys a red dress, in a sale at the local department store, to wear on a date. It proves a fatal choice. Later in the film two other characters — Reg Speak, a washing machine repairman, and his bride to be Babs — also fall victims to the demonic garment. En route, we learn that the woman who modelled the dress for the store catalogue died soon after the photo shoot.
But there is a lot more to In Fabric than this basic description would suggest. The film has an extraordinary, zany quality, and it’s not really about the plot. In his characteristic manner, Strickland transforms the simple storyline by introducing a range of other elements, resulting in film which evades easy classification, or indeed summary. The ‘trusted’ local department store Dentley & Soper, from where the dress originates, is staffed by assistants wearing Victorian costume, and presided over by a ghoulish manager, Mr Lundy, also in Victorian garb. They address the customers in hyperbolic circumlocutions, parodying the language of fashion advertising. ‘A purchase on the horizon, a panoply of temptation, can a curious soul resist?’ asks the senior sales assistant Miss Luckmore, as Sheila inspects a row of sale items. Later, when Sheila tries unsuccessfully to return the red dress to the store, Mr Lundy accosts her, expressing disappointment that she has not found satisfaction in the purchase. ‘A dress of deduction finds its character in a prism of retail abstraction’, he tells her, before explaining that returning an item once purchased ‘runs against the nature of things.’
Miss Luckmore appears to be in some kind of communion with the haunted dress. The garment shifts on the rail in Sheila’s wardrobe while Miss Luckmore engages in convulsive jerks. She seems non-human. After the store closes we see her take off her wig to reveal a perfectly bald head, like those of the store mannequins. Then she climbs into a dumb waiter and descends — where to we do not know.
In contrast to these moments of gothic extravagance we have the stories of Sheila, and later of Reg and Babs, presented in a style which recalls the social-realism of Mike Leigh (Marianne Jean-Baptiste, who plays Sheila, was Hortense in Leigh’s Secrets and Lies.) But Strickland undercuts even this seeming naturalism with elements of absurdist comedy. Sheila’s managers at the bank, Stash and Clive, are a hilarious parody of corporatist work culture. Presenting themselves as being on Sheila’s side, the pair pry into her private life, and guide her on how to better conform with company expectations. This includes developing a more ‘meaningful’ handshake, something their boss has suggested she lacks. Later she’s ticked off for having greeted the boss’ mistress in too familiar a manner. Strickland says Ricky Gervais’ The Office, was an influence.1
After closing hours, in the upper reaches of the department store, Miss Luckmore and another female shop assistant carry in a mannequin clad in a bra and panties. They proceed to undress it, washing and massaging the breasts. Miss Luckmore’s companion sits astride the dummy’s face, which is enveloped by her dress. They are watched through a glass partition by Mr Lundy who becomes increasingly excited by the women’s activities and begins to masturbate. When Miss Luckmore removes the mannequin’s panties we discover it has public hair. It also seems to be menstruating. Aware of Mr Lundy’s transports, Miss Luckmore inserts a finger into the oozing orifice and then licks her finger, leaving a smear of blood on her chin. This is the point at which Mr Lundy reaches orgasm. Strickland is clearly playing with the clichés of pornography here, but it is Miss Luckmore whose ‘gaze’ seems to predominate. She is the one in control. She imitates sardonically Mr Lundy’s groans of relief, and he finally turns away with a shame-faced expression.
Representations of sexuality, and in particular female sexuality, are central preoccupations of Strickland’s work. His first feature, Katalin Varga (2009), is the story of a young woman whose husband has just discovered he is not the father of their son. The boy is the result of a rape Katalin kept a secret because she feared she would lose her husband if he knew. Unable to endure the shame, her husband tells her to leave, and she sets out to track down and kill the two men who assaulted her. ‘Revenge tragedy’ is the obvious genre on which the film draws, but when Katalin catches up with the man who raped her she finds him to be very different from what she had expected. He’s living on a farm with a gentle, amiable woman, and the couple are clearly very much in love. He is full of remorse about the rape and begs Katalin to forgive him.
In Strickland’s next film, Berberian Sound Studio (2011), an English foley artist, Gilderoy, is hired by an Italian film studio to work on the sound track of a gory, sexploitation horror movie. We never see the film, but witness fragments of the dialogue being recorded, including much screaming. Gilderoy is required to impersonate the sounds of the young women being slashed, burned and clubbed, using an array of vegetables and kitchen implements. The director of the film claims that he is ‘representing the truth of history’, and objects to his work being described as ‘horror’. ‘I hate what they did to those beautiful women,’ he says. But when he forces himself on one of the female actors, she walks out, throwing the production into crisis. The misogyny embodied in the ‘horror’ film is replicated in the way the female actors are treated by the studio. Gilderoy, a repressed, middle-aged English man, appalled by the film and the behaviour of the director and others, disintegrates under the pressure.
Sexploitation films of the 1970s (Strickland mentions, among others, the director Jess Franco) also provided the initial inspiration for Strickland’s third feature The Duke of Burgundy (2014). This concerns the S&M relationship of a lesbian couple Cynthia and Evelyn. At the beginning of the film Cynthia appears to be a stern dominatrix who gets pleasure out of humiliating her maid. But as the film proceeds it becomes clear that Evelyn is not the house servant, but Cynthia’s lover and the dominant party. Cynthia, in fact, finds it increasingly difficult to sustain the role of sadist demanded of her. As with the other films the clichés of genre are subverted, and the complexities of actual relationships, the compromises and tensions they involve, subtly explored.
THE NOCTURNAL EROTIC rituals at Dentley & Soper are just one aspect of sexuality portrayed in In Fabric. Sexual relationships between other characters in the film are treated entirely differently. Sheila’s search for a new partner leads to her forming a relationship with a kindly man called Zak. Sheila’s desire for sexual intimacy is presented as natural, and their love making is portrayed discreetly. Sheila’s son Vince (who is still at school) is in a relationship with a woman called Gwen who is some years older than him. She clearly enjoys sex, including some mild bondage, but again the rendering of this in the film is restrained. Gwen is unapologetic about her sexuality, a source of tension with Sheila who finds her behaviour ‘disgusting’. Vince has artistic aspirations and twice we see pictures he has sketched depicting female genitals, in one case with his silhouette in the foreground, the vulva like a glowing sun, and Vince a worshipper. Is this an objectification of the female body, the reduction of Gwen to no more than a vagina? Or is it a celebration of the female sexual organ reminiscent of Georgia O’Keefe’s flower paintings?
Babs and Reg have a less obviously satisfying erotic relationship. While he tries to reach orgasm she’s complaining about the inclusion of some of his ‘friends’ on the guest list for their forthcoming wedding. ‘Are you listening?’ she asks. Reg is an emasculated male, whose stag night is an ordeal he endures because his ‘mates’ expect it of him. The red dress enters Reg’s story here, when one of these friends picks it up in a charity shop, and Reg is made to wear it, a humiliation his friends find hilarious.
But while his and Babs’ sex life might not be very exciting, there is a strong bond of affection in their relationship. Babs isn’t wholly disinterested in sexuality. She tries on the red dress because she thinks it makes her look attractive, and she invites Reg to compliment her on her appearance. Towards the end of the film she visits the Dentley & Soper sale in search of a new outfit. When Miss Luckmore sees Babs wearing the bewitched red dress, she tells her the store is closing and that she has to leave. Babs stands her ground and eventually, after Miss Luckmore has consulted with Mr Lundy, she is granted ‘an extension of time’. ‘I never thought I’d find myself saying this,’ Babs responds. ‘But you lot could do all with a good shag.’ Miss Luckmore and her manager find this highly amusing.
IN AN ARTICLE in Film Comment, Strickland says his ‘default taste’ in films ‘tends to veer into the shadows.’2 He watches ‘bad’ films, he explains, partly to ‘learn from others’ mistakes’ but also ‘to find something special in what others consider disreputable.’ What he finds interesting in a film is ‘atmosphere’. He wants to be taken ‘into another world.’3 He seems early on in his career to have taken to heart the advice of the surrealist film critic Ado Kyrou: ‘Learn to go and see the “worst” films; they are often sublime.’4 This fascination with ‘trash’, has much in common with the interests of the early surrealists.
Strickland’s work is clearly informed by surrealism. The sexualised mannequins of In Fabric recall the fetishistically attired shop window dummies which formed part of the International Exhibition of Surrealism in Paris in 1938. Hans Bellmer’s photographs of the constructions he made from re-arranged body-parts also come to mind, as does the more recent work of Cindy Sherman, in which female dummies adopt provocative, pornographic poses. Strickland mentions the work of Edward Kienholz, and in particular the disfiguring skin diseases displayed by some of his mannequins, as a source for the rash which the characters in In Fabric contract after wearing the dress.
Surrealism has always been primarily interested in an exploration of everyday life, albeit with an expanded sense of what that includes, and in exposing the reductive, controlling narratives of bourgeois culture. Like the surrealists, Strickland disrupts the normative conventions of ‘realism’ in order to portray a richer sense of the everyday world. He acknowledges the surrealist Walerian Borrowczyk as an important influence. The work of Jan Svankmajer — who was actively involved with the Czech surrealists — is perhaps also relevant here. The animation of the red dress in In Fabric recalls the way Svankmajer treats objects as repositories of experience. In an interview with Vratislav Effenberger, he says:
Objects conceal within themselves the events they have witnessed. That’s why I surround myself with them and try to uncover these hidden events and experiences…People were touching the objects and things in certain situations in life, while experiencing various tensions or moods and they have deposited their own feelings and emotions in them through their touch.5
Strickland says the idea for In Fabric arose after he purchased a pair of corduroy trousers in a charity shop and found a semen stain on the fly. It was the idea of the smells, the bodily secretions, the emotional histories carried in clothing, and people’s differing reactions to these, which he conceived of as a kind of ‘haunting’. The dress embodies these past experiences, living out the repressed desires, the unrealised fantasies of those who have handled it. Sheila and Babs both have their washing machines destroyed when they try to wash the dress, as though the garment is fighting their attempts to erase its past.
Svankmajer’s work is often about childhood experience, and In Fabric seems to be concerned, at some level, with Strickland’s boyhood memories. Dentley & Soper is modelled on Jacksons of Reading, an old fashioned department store, now defunct, which Strickland knew as a boy. At one point in the film Reg has a flashback to a childhood memory of being fitted with a fleece jacket, the female sales assistant crouching in front of him, and revealing a generous amount of thigh. The attention to the tactile, in the work of both Borrowczyk and Svankmajer, reinforced by meticulous sound effects, also finds echoes in In Fabric. ‘Touch it,’ says Miss Luckmore, when Sheila buys the dress, and they both caress the material. Reg also gently strokes the fabric when he first puts on the dress.
STRICKLAND’S FIRST FEATURE won an award at the Berlin International Film Festival for its ‘sound engineering’, and the audio effects on all of his films are stunning. The tactile dimensions to In Fabric are underlined by the sound of the swish of material, the gentle brushing of fabric, the flapping of the dress in the wind.
His musical tastes include avant garde composers like Stockhausen, Berio and Nono, the musique concrète of Luc Ferrari, film composers like Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicolai, who provided the music for some of the genre films he admires, and a host of indie bands, including Stereolab, Cat’s Eyes, and Nurse with Wound. Tim Gane, who created the music for In Fabric, was a founder member of Stereolab. Their compilation album Refried Ectoplasm tops a list of 13 albums Strickland gives as his favourites. ‘Stereolab were not just a band,’ he says, ‘they were a world which encompassed their music, visuals, influences…’ Nurse with Wound appears in the music credits for In Fabric. The alternative pop duo Cat’s Eyes provided the score for The Duke of Burgundy. One of the inspirations for Berberian Sound Studio was a 20-minute recording Berio made of his wife, the mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian, screaming.
Links to surrealism are also evident in these musical influences. Nurse with Wound’s first album is named after a phrase from Chants de Maldoror much admired by the surrealists: ‘Beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella.’ Steven Stapleton’s music mixes disparate elements in much the way early surrealist texts and collages did, with the aim of creating the kind of ‘beauty’ envisaged by Lautréamont. Other bands Strickland admires employ similar techniques. Gane, and his Stereolab co-founder, French born Laetitia Sadier, describe surrealism, along with dada, Marxism, and situationism, as an influence on their work. As one of Stereolab’s songs declares: ‘We’re not here to get bored, we’re here to disrupt.’ Strickland is himself a member of a band, Sonic Culinary Band. They use sounds created during the preparation of food as raw material, which is then manipulated electronically. Their first album was titled ‘The First Supper’.
At the end of the film Babs is in Denby & Soper, flicking through the catalogue. She tells Miss Luckmore of a ‘sleeping dream’ she had the previous night. She was the model in the catalogue, always wearing the same blue slip, but getting thinner and thinner while the sizes given on the page grew larger. We see images of Babs looking more and more anorexic, the final image of her a skeleton. The dream, as with others recounted earlier by Sheila and Reg, anticipates her death. While she’s trying on something from the sale, the red dress slides under the door of the changing cubicle and onto a heater where it starts a fire. ‘A dramatic situation has compromised our trusty department store,’ the public-address system announces. ‘Get out graciously.’ Babs, who is trapped in the changing room, perishes in the inferno.
In the final scenes of the film we see Miss Luckmore, clutching the torso of a mannequin rescued from the blaze, descending in her dumb waiter. On successive floors we glimpse the catalogue model, Sheila, Reg and then Babs, each working on a red dress at a sewing machine, like employees in a sweatshop. On subsequent floors there are unattended machines, set up with the dress, seemingly waiting new victims. Then we cut to a fire officer walking through the debris of the store, where the dress is found undamaged.
Some reviewers have read the film as a critique of the fashion world, the indestructible dress with its lust for blood a symbol of the predatory nature of the industry. Others have suggested it’s about the world of work. In Fabric unquestionably takes a critical view of aspects of the fashion industry, and its links to the construction of a particular narrative about female identity. It also portrays the workplace as invasive of personal space, and organised around control. But the dress is a symbol not only of destruction, but also of transgressive desire. There’s a dialectical tension in In Fabric between the constrained, conventional lives of the dress’s victims, and the deviant world represented by the erotic rituals at the department store. The repressed fantasies and infantile desires which the dress absorbs from being used, ultimately overwhelm its wearers.
Simon Collings lives in Oxford and has published poems, stories and critical essays in a range of journals including Stride, Journal of Poetics Research, Café Irreal,Tears in the Fence, Ink Sweat and Tears, Lighthouse and PN Review. Out West, his first chapbook, was published by Albion Beatnik in 2017, and a second chapbook, Stella Unframed, was released by The Red Ceilings Press in 2018. An archive of his work for The Fortnightly Review is here.
- In an interview with Strickland in Dazed, 24 June, 2019. There’s also an interesting analysis of the way Gervais subverted the conventions prevailing in 1990s sitcom in Brett Mills, ‘Comedy verité: contemporary sitcom form,’ Screen, 45:1 (Spring 2004).
- Peter Strickland, ‘Guilty Pleasures’, Film Comment, 51:2 (March/April 2015) pp.14-15.
- Demetrious Matheou, ‘Of human bondage’, Sight and Sound, March 2015.
- Quoted in Michael Richardson, Surrealism and Cinema (Berg Press:2015), p.18.
- Afterimage 13 (1987), quoted in Richardson op. cit. p.128.