Tuesday 9 July 2019

The old curiosity shop: "In Fabric"

To observe that Peter Strickland's is a cinema of fetishes is to understate the extent to which all cinema is a cinema of fetishes. Still, few working filmmakers have been so brazen in centring those fetishes so: think back to the obsessively curated sounds of 2012's Berberian Sound Studio or the butterflies and role-playing of 2014's The Duke of Burgundy. To these, Strickland's latest In Fabric will add a killer red dress, plus several more elements dredged up from the darkest, dustiest recesses of this filmmaker's imagination. The characters here talk as we talk in 2019, yet they inhabit a space that appears inexorably tied to a formative moment in the 46-year-old Strickland's life. We see, in no particular order, a landline telephone (which prompts a further Proustian jolt as its owner answers a call by reciting the full eleven-digit number); green flock wallpaper; personal ads directing interested parties to P.O. box numbers; and foursquare television sets carrying trippy ads for a local department store. As has been noted elsewhere, Strickland's work has a close kinship with hauntology, that very modern science in which discarded artefacts and recordings are scoured for proofs of how we used to live; before a single drop of blood is shed, In Fabric is possessed of that spookiness that follows from stumbling across the long lost or abandoned. The characters - lonely divorcee Marianne Jean-Baptiste, young newlyweds Hayley Squires and Leo Bill - come and go. The dress - crimson-red, with an invocation in Latin stitched into the hem - will be all that survives of them.

The perversity in this redesign of the heritage (or, if you prefer, costume) drama stems from the much-travelled Strickland's ability to mesh the very English with the somehow most un-English. (In Fabric is the only film in existence to bear the closing credit "Shot in Croydon, Reading, Budapest and Visegrad"; Strickland's passport alone would make him an interesting filmmaker to have around at a moment where loud questions are being raised about our national identity.) As for the former, look to the film's fond evocation of a 1970s-era department store, which - with its bespoke wrapping papers, pneumatic tube system to carry change and overly attentive staff - would surely have seemed the height of high-street sophistication around the time of Are You Being Served?. (It's a film that recognises you and I are witnessing the fall of the House of Fraser, and that we just don't get the same experience walking into a Primark or TK Maxx.) There's something uniquely parochial about the bug-strewn restaurant Jean-Baptiste visits on dates, the passive-aggressive meetings she's corralled into by her work superiors (Steve Oram and Julian Barratt, with especially unnerving teeth), and a sequence of lads-night-out awfulness that can only end in a big pool of carroty vomit. Most directors are stuck in adolescence or some other version of the past, dreamers who haven't ventured all that far from the bedrooms in which they first plotted how to remodel the world. Strickland's Thames Valley-on-Thames creeps into view before us as a shitty Brigadoon, left untouched by either the cold, hard collateral of the Thatcher years or the cheerier gentrification of New Labour: a land that time appears to have forgotten, it is, in every sense, another country.

More exotic are those collaborators this director has picked up on the travels around Europe that began with 2009's Katalin Varga. First among equals here: the Romanian actress Fatma Mohamed, playing the role of shop clerk-cum-sorceress, who would appear to find it impossible to say or do anything with any degree of normality, and may as a result be the most fascinating figure in any film presently on release. (Like a distaff equivalent of the similarly maquillaged Robert Blake in Lost Highway, you cannot take your eyes off of her, and worry what would happen if you did.) Yet there's also a small army of behind-the-camera tech whizzes, again sourced from Eastern Europe, who work overtime to ensure nothing about In Fabric looks or sounds quite as it would in, say, a Working Title production set in the 1970s. These outsiders, doubtless less familiar with Mollie Sugden and Wendy Richard than they would be with Harry Kümel's Daughters of Darkness, help Strickland to equip the film with unexpected flourishes in production design and cinematography, and there again on the soundtrack. Why is it that the outgoing message on the Jean-Baptiste answerphone has been recorded by a woman in evident distress? Why does the department store's emergency broadcast feature somebody cackling malevolently? How can the thoroughly rational British film industry have spawned a creative whose choices are so persistently, deliriously irrational? (This may have been the question asked of Michael Powell around the moment he unveiled his Red Shoes.)

Strickland still presents as a bit of a knobtwiddler himself, which may explain why his has become a cinema especially beloved of blokes: it's full of those arcane concerns men habitually mothball away in that headspace where their emotional intelligence ought to go. Too much of this beardy squirrelling can seem unhealthy: I found The Duke of Burgundy rather like being cornered in an attic by an uncle keen to expound upon his collection of vintage lesbian erotica, and thus spent much of it longing for fresh air and cleansing sunlight. Here, however, he does a far better job of turning the dial and locking onto that frequency where the funny-strange becomes indistinguishable from the funny-ha ha. The casting keeps it lively: it's amusing that the diminutive Jean-Baptiste should find her home invaded by her son's Amazonian life-model girlfriend (Gwendoline Christie, from Game of Thrones), and seasoned comedy players Oram and Barratt have their oddball schtick down to a wonky tee. Yet they're drawing on a filigreed script that invents its own language - florid in places, gnomic in others; the contrast alone draws a laugh or two - and appears capable of a wry autocritique, recognising the limits of the cataloguing approach. The line "what I'd give to know what goes on in the male mind" cues only a droning monologue on the workings of washing machines that sends anyone in the vicinity to sleep. We've all known men like that; hell, we may even have been that man at some point.

Somewhere in the back of In Fabric's mental warehouse, there lurks the idea that material goods (possibly capitalism en tout) can be a deadly business - lethal, when not plain boring. It's visible in the shot of excitable consumers lining up outside the store's doors in the early hours to be greeted by the satanically wild-eyed manager we've just seen sexually pleasuring himself over one of his mannequins; there again in the vicious fistfight that breaks out between two women of a certain age over a particular sale item. (Here, Strickland seems to realise that Black Friday would chime favourably with the works of Mario Bava.) Yet that may be too lend too much sociopolitical import to what is, ultimately, another solidly tongue-in-cheek addition to a determinedly cult filmography. I remain in that minority who maintain Strickland lost something after Katalin Varga, which operated in a more sincere mode, when the nature of the domestic film business required he come indoors, work on sets, and watch the go-for-the-throat wildness that made his debut so arresting tail off into cultivated eccentricity. Still, he's never abandoned his craft, nor his attention to detail; there's both consolation and pleasure to be derived from In Fabric's lovingly tailored pastiche. Strickland knows how to dress these fetishes up, and how to air them out when necessary, and there are moments - usually involving that dangerous red chiffon billowing in the night - when In Fabric strikes the eye as an uncannily fetching object.

In Fabric is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Curzon Home Cinema.

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