Review by David Baldwin
I have been kicking myself for missing In Fabric when it screened during TIFF well over a year ago. I had scheduled it in for the second day of the festival and lined up diligently 40 minutes prior to showtime. It was my first year being a serious member of the press and I had quickly discovered that to maintain my schedule, it would involve a lot of running around between theatres and screens. Having already sat through 8 films by that point, I thought I had it all figured out. But I had not factored in the size of the screen and the number of seats for that particular screening, and stupidly thought that I would not have any issues entering despite the obscene number of people in line. My confidence took a bit of a hit when they cut off the line with ten people ahead of me. Somehow I held out hope that eleven magical seats would show up if I waited around, missing other potential screenings I could have ran into instead. But it was not to be for me, the few people ahead and the 100+ behind me.
TIFF made up for this by scheduling multiple additional screenings of the film to meet the audience demand. As it would turn out, I had other much more pressing movies to see literally every single time they showed it. I was disappointed I missed out, but the consolation was seeing literally everything else. A24 picked up the film for release in the US soon after the festival (Mongrel Media picked it up for Canada), so I assumed I would not have to wait all that long to see it. That was September 2018.
Cut to December 2019. It is very cold outside, Christmas is coming, a whole other TIFF has come and gone, and I am just now finally seeing In Fabric. Some would call it a Christmas movie, so thematically the timing makes sense. But to say my expectations were super high would be an understatement.
In Fabric revolves around a red dress. More specifically, an artery-coloured dress. Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) initially picks it up during a massive holiday sale at the strangest and most macabre department store in existence. She is going on a date, and is shocked that it fits (but not shocked or thrown off by the store’s strange vibes). The date is a bust, but she is still rather fond of the dress. Then Sheila starts noticing weird things happening with the dress, like it moving without anyone physically touching it. She shrugs it off, but as things gradually get more bizarre, she begins to think there may be something wrong with the dress after all.
I have heard raves about In Fabric for fifteen months. As I watched the film, I kept thinking back to them – never once understanding if they had watched the same film I did. Yes, it was intricately detailed, beautifully lurid and atmospheric. It also seemed to be obsessed with paying homage to Dario Argento, Suspiria and the giallo film genre at every turn. And yes, it could be accurately described as a phantasmagoria, a term that is much too elitist and snobby for its own good (not to mention ridiculously hard to spell and actually say out loud). Looking past those things, it just felt like a frustratingly enigmatic horror film masquerading as a dark satire about…consumerism? That is what I got from it and I am not exactly certain that was what Writer/Director Peter Strickland was intending. Because if it was, why focus so much on the dress and the torment it causes? Why drop in a third act turn that goes so far down the rabbit hole that it seems better suited for a completely different film that does not involve a spooky dress?
Much like the work of Robert Eggers’ that everyone online cannot get enough of, I was left with many questions and precious few answers after watching In Fabric – and even less when I reflect on it. I wanted to love it as much as everyone else did and literally could not take my eyes off it. Jean-Baptiste is genuinely terrific in the film, as are Fatma Mohamed (as enigmatic store clerk Miss Luckmoore) and Hayley Squires. They all seem to be keenly aware of what Strickland is going for here, and play into the film’s frequent tonal pivots. Gwendoline Christie – who most will remember from Game of Thrones and her brief role as Captain Phasma in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Star Wars: The Last Jedi – gets to have some fun early on, but seems to be painfully ignored all too soon after.
I will plead ignorance when it comes to the rest of Strickland’s oeuvre, and will admit that had I seen The Duke of Bergundy and Berberian Sound Studio, I might have been better prepared for what he was going for in In Fabric. But as it stands, I appreciate the care he put into the craft more than I appreciate the film itself. It has great performances and looks great, but it is much too frustratingly enigmatic for my liking.
In Fabric opens today at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. You can buy tickets for it here!
It is also playing at the Screening Room in Kingston, the Apollo in Kitchener, and the Metro Theatre in Edmonton!