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In Fabric: A Conversation with Peter Strickland

From the release of Peter Strickland’s debut film, Katalin Varga, in 2009—a film I have been trying to get everyone to watch for years now with little avail—he has established himself as one of the forerunners of contemporary genre filmmaking. Not quite a horror director, his unusual, unforgettable work is often concerned with rethinking genre themes and exploring their boundaries, or applying their influence to different types of stories: for example, Katalin Varga reinterprets the rape revenge film while incorporating dark fairy tale elements; and Berberian Sound Studio (2012) is an inventive update on giallo film tropes about a sound engineer working on an Italian horror film. Sound, color, and texture is vitally important to all of his films, so it seems inevitable that Strickland eventually turned to the medium of fashion. Style within the film takes on a psychological importance equivalent to the films of a director like Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

I honestly couldn’t have imagined that Strickland would make a film I’d love more than Duke of Burgundy (2014)—a dreamy exploration of the sometimes disappointing realities of a sadomasochistic romantic relationship—but his latest, In Fabric (2018), is his most accomplished and complex work as a filmmaker. Because the film has made the festival circuit but has yet to be released theatrically or for home audiences (coming later this year), I will try to be sensitive about spoilers. Loosely, the film follows a seemingly cursed dress, which transfixes and then destroys several characters: Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a middle-aged woman attempting to date after a painful divorce, as well as an awkward young repairman (Leo Bill) and his fiancée (Hayley Squires).

There is a stark psychological realism not often found in contemporary horror films and all three of the primary leads have a believability and sense of familiarity that shapes the narrative in often unexpected ways. In Fabric explores a number of Strickland’s trademark themes, such as lonely characters isolated in hostile environments who are often confronted with violence. Sexual fetishism, a theme so central to Duke of Burgundy, is fortunately continued here—including the most glorious come shot in a non-hardcore film and what can only be described as a washing machine fetish—while introducing sharp political commentary and the blackest humor. (Keep an eye out for a surprise cameo from the wonderful Julian Barratt of The Mighty Boosh.)

The film explores the sinister, possibly occult side of consumerism, while also elegantly exploring its power in our lives and its ability to shape our very perception of ourselves. The satanic sales woman Miss Luckmoore (my favorite of Strickland’s regular collaborators, Fatma Mohamed) weaves the separate chapters together and introduces an almost Buñuelian tone of surreal chaos to the film—which I suspect will appeal to arthouse audiences as much as if not more so than traditional horror fans—culminating in a near-perfect conclusion set in a department store.

Peter Strickland was kind enough to speak with me about the film ahead of its release (again, spoilers are kept to a minumum).

Diabolique: Where did the story idea for In Fabric come from? I’ve seen some speculation that the inspiration was Cornell Woolrich and his story “I’m Dangerous Tonight” (about a possessed dress), but that has such a different tone. Did you have any specific reference points?

Peter Strickland: The more the film travels the more I hear about very similar films or stories. I honestly hadn’t heard about any cursed clothing films, though the idea of a cursed object is something easily within the bounds of folklore.

The curse was a device to explore the power of clothing – how, in the case of Sheila, it transforms us and lifts our mood or how, in the case of Babs, it reminds us how disappointing our bodies are (regardless of any objective gauge of what counts as disappointing).

Maybe in hindsight it wasn’t pushed so much, but I was fascinated by the presence of humans in clothing – smells, stains and that kind of thing and how those things can provoke disgust (Sheila refusing to wash Gwen’s lingerie), arousal (Vince having his face printed on Gwen’s lingerie) or in the case of Sheila’s dream about her mother’s clothing, grief. The fetishistic element is always interesting and directors such as Buñuel often understood the erotic power of an object. It’s still taboo to some degree and you have someone like Reg who can’t really communicate his deep need to see Babs in hosiery. Likewise, she’s struggling on her own with body dysmorphia. He doesn’t get her obsessions and she doesn’t get his, but they’re still devoted to each other, which is still romantic for me.

The main reference point was clothing shops – not high-end shops, but department stores or charity shops. You walk into a charity shop and you’re faced with endless imagined stories. I often imagine what kind of erotic adventures someone previously had in the secondhand clothing I bought. Even with new clothing, someone made it and quite often that must’ve been under exploitative conditions. I didn’t want to be didactic about the ethical side of cheaply produced items as I’d be a hypocrite, which is why the sweatshop in the film has more in common with Dante than with Ken Loach.

Diabolique: I thought it was really unusual that you split the narrative in two, rather than making it a standalone story or an anthology. Was there a particular reason for this?

PS: The first few drafts had six victims, but that would’ve made it a long and expensive film, which we couldn’t afford. I cut it down to three victims (in two stories) purely for financial reasons. Losing the six victims was frustrating due to the six times six = 36 business, (given that’s the Euro size of the dress) but the film gained something as well by allowing us more time with each character. I didn’t want Sheila, Reg or Babs to feel dispensable and more importantly, for them not to be punished. They exist in a consumerist world, but I don’t regard them as more or less complicit in that than most of us. I like the characters a lot and can relate to that town life thing of being bored at work and escaping with retail therapy during a lunch break. I don’t see anything wrong with that.

I’d fall into the didactic trap if the dress punished the lead characters and also it becomes too logical once modes of behaviour are punished. The dress is irrational and random in its power and execution, which for me is the stuff of nightmares.

Diabolique: Aside from possibly Berberian Sound Studio, your films are really overwhelmed by female characters and In Fabric is no exception. Can you talk about working with Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Fatma Mohamed? For me, both of their characters really drove the film (albeit in very different ways) and I was so happy to see Fatma again.

PS: Even though they’re worlds apart, both Sheila and Miss Luckmoore have a connection in that they deal with the public in their jobs and have to engage in a modicum of customer service even if it’s to different ends. I spoke of each place in the town in terms of being on a dial with 1 on social realism and 10 on complete surrealism. Nothing was on 1 or 10, but home for Sheila would’ve been on 2 or 3, the bank where she works on 4 or 5 and the department store on 8 or 9, but Sheila had to remain consistent as she went from place to place. Even with the dial on 9, there is still a connection to the performative nature of retail and the euphemistic language we often use in Britain. Within those confines, I didn’t want to dictate things too much in terms of delivery. I usually prefer a straight and neutral delivery. Within those confines, the cracks of loneliness or some other emotion are what come alive because they’re held in. I didn’t have to do too much. They’re both brilliant actors and my job is to give them a climate to work in.

Diabolique: Recently the Suspiria remake has been getting all these comparisons to Fassbinder, which I oddly felt applied far more to In Fabric (particularly in terms of your use of melodrama and the exploration of loneliness and romantic relationships). I know in the past you’ve mentioned your appreciation of some Eurocult filmmakers like Jess Franco, but can you talk about some of your cinematic influences for In Fabric?

PS: This is the first film in which I consciously tried to lose cinematic influences. There were a few, but on such a small scale. I wanted to retain the sensibility of some of those BBC MR James adaptations, but instead of the misty beach, it’s the queue for the sales at dawn. Of course, I love Fassbinder and many directors associated with giallo such as Bava, Argento, Martino and Lenzi, but they weren’t really on my mind. Maybe it was subconscious or maybe because the department stores I remember could’ve been in a giallo film. I worked backwards from the dress and then the characters (along with their stories) came from that way. The important thing was they were all innocent in some way – the lonely woman wanting to look good on a date, the reluctant stag being forced to wear the dress and his fiancée just trying his dress on instead of throwing it away.

This might come as a shock, but one big influence on the film was The Office. It perfectly caught what my friends and I went through during the ’90s and into the following decade.  We were middle class brats who were not quite middle class or bratty enough to go straight into film so we did retail or office jobs unrelated to our passions for years on end. It felt like a waste of time, but seeing The Office opened my eyes to all the experiences I wrote off.

There were a lot of influences outside of film such as some of Katalin Ladik’s performances as well as early Swans gigs on YouTube that both inspired some of Fatma Mohamed’s rituals. Edward Kienholz’s mannequin sculptures as well. But the biggest influence was autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) videos on YouTube. I didn’t realise I was prone to that kind of thing until someone suggested I look it up. The music I loved (Luc Ferrari, Nurse with Wound, Costin Mireaneau and Robert Ashley) was often steeped in ASMR, as were my films, but I never questioned my response to it, and I don’t know whether it was better to experience such things unknowingly or now knowingly.  

Diabolique: Out of all your films so far, In Fabric seems boldest in terms of how it approaches sexual content and black comedy, which are often entwined together. How did you approach those elements when you started writing the film? And without giving away any spoilers, can you talk a little about how you approached filming some of those moments (like that amazing come shot)?

PS: The tone of a script often plays out as I’m writing. I try my best to be naive when starting something and not know which direction anything is going in. Besides the things already mentioned such as objects, I’m trying to explore feelings and sensations. I tend to gravitate towards sexual desire mainly because of the paradoxes surrounding that subject; it’s often sneered at or even taboo, but it’s a subject that drives almost all of us even if we’ve never experienced gratification with someone else. It feeds into so much and with clothing it’s the perfect foil.

Comedy is really tricky as it can be misconstrued as irony or superiority, but a lack of comedy often lapses into earnestness. I’ve never had a problem discussing serious matters with humour, which often is the best way through it. Brexit will have a huge negative impact on my life, but I wrote a comedy about it. Whether it comes to anything or not is another thing, but that’s often my default way of dealing with things. Saying that, there are other serious matters I could never work humour into, so it’s hard to say.

We had 25 or so days to shoot In Fabric and I had to make choices over which scenes to take time on and which to do more quickly and simply. The mannequin ritual has an intensity and incoherence that is the whole film for me in one scene. It was a vital scene and we devoted a lot of time to it at the expense of other scenes. All the detail was in the script and everyone knew what was involved so we just got on with it. All the elements came together on that scene, which didn’t always happen elsewhere, but that ritual definitely worked for me and the intensity was there. It fed into the idea of bodily stains on clothing, red dye and that ambiguity between mannequins and humans.

Diabolique: Thank you so much! We can’t wait for In Fabric to be released later this year.

About Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is Associate Editor of Diabolique Magazine and co-host of the Daughters of Darkness podcast. She's the editor of Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin from Spectacular Optical, and her book on Fritz Lang's M is forthcoming from Auteur Publishing.

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