Peter Strickland is back with his fourth feature, a tragicomic, absurdist, horror tribute to killer dresses, hidden pain, and his re-found love for 90s Reading. I took a look at the film, then sat down with the director to discuss its roots in his own childhood.
In Fabric (in cinemas and on demand from 28 June), set in the Thames Valley in the early 90s, is the story of a demonic dress, the retro-gothic department store that sells it, and the commuter-town denizens that fall prey to its infernal power.
Single mum Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is the first to come under its sway, seeking a confidence-boosting outfit as she re-enters the dating scene. Later, in a second story, the dress falls into the hands of washing machine repairman Reg (Leo Bill) and his fiancée Babs (Haley Squires). Reg is made to wear the dress as a stag-do stunt by his bullying father-in-law; Babs is delighted the next day to find that the dress now mysteriously fits her.
All of these characters are wrestling with feelings they cannot express. Sheila is lonely and isolated, her artist son pushing her away. Reg recoils from workplace bravado concealing his fetishes for hosiery and fleeces. Babs’s quiet obsession with dress sizes conceals a pattern of body dysmorphia. Under the dress’s influence their pain comes to the surface – before the enigmatic outfit has its way with them.
Mysterious, enchanting, tragic, kinky, and at times uproariously funny, In Fabric is a continuation of (and a leap forward from) the path that Strickland has been making for himself; a path than runs through his breakthrough Carpathian revenge tale Katalin Varga, post-giallo psychodrama Berberian Sound Studio and mitteleuropean BDSM dream-fable The Duke of Burgundy.
He has marshalled his recurring interests – fetishism, analogue technology, haptic sensuality, the limits of communication, estranged mothers, uneasiness about machismo, uncanny bodies, the isolating dangers of art, a fear of the workplace, the gothic allure of the Carpathian Mountains – and re-fashioned them into his funniest, warmest, and most personal work to date.
This commuter town is a haunted world in which the dividing line between mannequins and humans seems to blur, and the humming modulations of fuzzy tv adverts cast a hypnotic spell. But it’s also a deadpan gothic spin on keenly observed workplace comedies like The Office, and a study in heartbreak and loneliness.
Strickland says he originally had as many as five or six stories for In Fabric, but under budget constraints he has cut it down to two, and he sometimes ponders aloud whether he might film the others at some point “if the film’s a success.”
Well, it certainly deserves to be. Playful, heartfelt, disorienting, and frequently very funny, it is one of the films of the year, and marks its director out as an increasingly major talent and a truly visionary filmmaker.
In Fabric’s personal element becomes clear once you spot that its fictional commuter town of Thames-Valley-upon-Thames is a stand-in for Strickland’s childhood home town of Reading. The film’s menacing department store Dentley and Soper’s, lurking ominously on the high street, will be familiar to anyone from Reading as lightly fictionalised version of Jacksons, the archaic department store that sat on that town’s Jacksons Corner from 1875 to 2013. Famous for its pneumatic tube system, shuttling bills and money-packets up and down the floors, and for its musty atmosphere, wooden panelling and unnerving mannequins, Jacksons looms large in Reading’s collective consciousness. Strickland takes great joy in recreating its strange, enchanting power for the screen.
From what I’ve seen, audiences for In Fabric seem to divide into two camps – those who laugh “what an amusingly creepy shop!” and those from Berkshire who sit upright in their seats and mutter “bloody hell, I’ve been there.”
In the film, the customers wait for the January sales to begin, bustling around outside Dentley and Soper’s pre-dawn in a state somewhere between fiery villagers advancing on a gothic castle and hungry children anxious to be let into Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. The elegant, sexual, mannequin-like workers observe them from a high window, gazing down through the frosty air at their jostling bodies.
The Reading references continue throughout – characters such as Miss Luckmore (Strickland regular Fatma Mohamed) and Miss Lullworth are named after Reading streets, as is the film’s nightclub, Zinzan’s. A seductive clothing catalogue shows dresses in ‘Berkshire Blue’ (and ‘Artery Red’), then burns away apocalyptically to reveal references to a ‘Caversham’ collection.
Perhaps more importantly, pointing towards the emotional core of the film, lonely mother Sheila works at Waingels Bank. Strickland confirms to me that it’s named after Waingels Copse school, in the Reading suburb of Woodley, where his own mother worked while he was a child. Both the fictional bank and the real-world school have green uniforms and a ‘W’ logo.
Aside from the demonic dress, the outfit most associated with Shelia is her work blouse, covered all over in Waingels Ws. As the dress grows more powerful, it smashes its way back and forth in her wardrobe, battering her other clothes including the Waingels blouse. There are powerful negative forces at play, though I wonder if they emanates from the dress itself, or if the dress simply picks up and magnifies the repressed pain it senses around it.
Sheila looks for love via the personal columns, meeting dates at the local Greek restaurant with mixed success. It may or may not be relevant that Strickland’s own father is Greek.
The period is meaningful too. Although the world of In Fabric might feel like it occupies a vague time between 1975 and 1990, it’s actually set in 1993. Some audiences murmur surprise when Strickland mentions this in one of his touring Q&As. But the depiction is accurate – speaking from personal experience, Reading in 1993 really did seem to occupy a vague time between 1975 and 1990.
At the time Strickland himself would have been about 20 years old. Around that point he left Reading, taking a horizon-expanding holiday in New York before making Bubblegum there – his first 16mm film, starring transgender Factory icon Holly Woodlawn, most famous for inspiring Lous Reed’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side’.
But then he returned to the UK, moving around other small towns in England in a period he’s described as a “12 years of wallowing”. Only after a modest inheritance from an uncle he was able to move out to Hungary – and as far as Transylvania, where he made Katalin Varga.
Interview with Peter Strickland
I met with Strickland to discuss In Fabric, his approach to film, and why it was he had finally returned to the town of his youth – if only in a fictionalised form.
As I arrive, he’s frowning.
“They’ve been filming me for a video thing,” he sighs. Did he not like the angle? “Too many angles, too much footage. There’s a reason we do this job, and it’s to be on this side of the camera, not that side.”
I start by discussing In Fabric’s links to his most recent prior work, the final part of the fairy tale anthology The Field Guide to Evil. He contributed Cobblers’ Lot, a short fairy tale about enchanted shoes and the curse they put on those who come into contact with them.
Pope: In Fabric seems to have an enchanted clothing connection to Cobblers’ Lot. Did they come from a similar place of inspiration?
Strickland: It wasn’t planned, but they probably do come from a similar place. I was exploring fetishism in both films, though in very different ways.
Cobblers’ Lot draws from early cinema, but also Powell and Pressburger had a huge influence. Bizarrely The Red Shoes keeps coming up [when people discuss] In Fabric, but it wasn’t an influence on In Fabric – it was an influence on Cobblers’ Lot.
[For Cobblers’ Lot] I was commissioned to make a dark fairy tale, based on an existing fairy tale of a country I was familiar with. So I picked Hungary, and went through many folk tales until I found something interesting. The original was about two brothers fighting for the love of a princess. Here was the bare bones of something – but what can I do to turn it into something different?
But it didn’t have the fetishistic element. It didn’t have anything to do with shoes.
So I made them cobblers… and added nymphs in the water.
Katalin Varga, Berberian Sound Studio, Duke of Burgundy, Cobblers’ Lot, now In Fabric. The level of comedy seems to be increasing. Are you becoming more playful?
Yesterday I was thinking I’d love to do something like Joy Division’s Closer. Not an official film adaptation of the album. Just that feeling of wonderful melancholy.
With Katalin Varga, I was into Bella Tarr, Herzog that kind of grey European Cinema. But I remember growing up watching films like [1975 voyeurism-themed gothic horror/porn] Thundercrack. I was massively into Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey. My first short film was with Holly Woodlawn from the Morrissey films.
To me they’re the ultimate in mischief… I’m not mischievous, but I enjoy mischief. I think that’s an important element that somehow is becoming eroded. I think when everyone’s so scared of offending now that we’re losing that element.
Earlier, in a post-screening Q&A, Strickland bemoaned the incursions of the US censor on the American cut of the film.
“They removed two shots – Fatma smearing blood all around her mouth, and the second of the two ejaculation shots. We were only allowed one, apparently. I mean… if you’re going to show one ejaculation shot, why not both?”
He shrugged, bewildered, to the audience’s delighted applause.
This seems to be your most comedic film…
I’ve heard a few laughs in the cinema. There was certainly no laughter when we showed In Fabric to our financiers. So I was amazed when we showed it in Toronto. People laughed! Phew!
In the past, with Berberian Sound Studio, I had that and I got scared putting other things in. I stopped myself. No one told me don’t put that in, but in hindsight… (he sighs) That was a lesson to me. You need to close yourself off as a filmmaker.
I love the way you orchestrate intensity across the time of the film, and bring it up and down from scene to scene.
When Tim talks about his music it’s all about intensity: the repetition, accumulation, and modulation. I was really into all that. It wasn’t really about development, it wasn’t about resolution or arcs or journeys it was just about intensity. Sometimes we get there, and sometimes we don’t. But when we do get there, in moments, I’m quite proud of it.
And other times I think “Oh well.”
This film is filled with seemly absurd language. Shelia’s workplace, Waingel’s Bank, has posters for “The Waingels Wavelength” featuring “19 Concepts of Transactioneering”.
There are also a lot of methodically recited numbers – at one point a character insists, with a sense of revelation, that “numbers are only a representation of reality.” What is reality to you, is that something we can ever really understand, or only represent?
It only hit me when I left this country and started learning Hungarian, how euphemistic the British language is. We’re constantly dressing up bad things with language.
I think in In Fabric there’s a very concrete emotional reality in that film. It’s about work, and about escapism.
I mean really for me it’s about living in Reading in the 1990s, having day jobs and escaping during your lunch break. To me the scenes that people think are ‘bizarre’ are exaggerated of course but they’re still connected to the tropes of retail, the tropes of performing, and of working.
So… just to set the tone, I don’t want to make out I was struggling. I went to a posh school and I’m middle class. I just don’t want to make it sound like I was struggling. But I ended up working at Asda.
When you’re doing the staff training, It’s called “The Asda Experience”. So I couldn’t resist “The Waingels Wavelength”. It was a very important thing – I worked closely with [art director and graphic designer] Felicity Hickson to do that design. It was also a tribute to Michael Snow’s Wavelength.
The one thing I see as bizarre and no-one else sees as bizarre is the dress. The supernatural element. But because that’s so ingrained in genre cinema that people see that as normal now. But that to me is the whacked out thing.
On the subject of design, in one bank scene there’s a photo-fit poster of a wanted criminal… is it you?
Yes, well – it’s got the most attractive part of my face, which is my forehead. It’s [producer] Andy Starke’s eyes, and [production designer] Paki Smith’s beard – a composite of the three of us.
This does seems to me to be your most personal film. I’ve got a couple of quotes…
They always misquote me!
…from 2012, “I believe in keeping your personal life off screen,” and from 2009, “Oscar Wilde was thrown in prison there; that’s all you need to know about Reading.”
[Laughs] I did say that one.
So, why now? Why have you decided to make a very personal film about Reading?
All my films are personal. You shouldn’t discuss your personal life – that’s a different thing from putting it on the screen. [My films] are not autobiographical. They’re personal. Once you say something’s personal, people often mix up the two things.
All the characters are a mixture of me, a mixture of other people. There’s no one character that’s all me. Gwen (played by Gwendoline Christie) – she’s me but she’s also other people, and so on.
I’ve heard Strickland say this before, in Q&As, and he always emphasises Gwen, the pushy, passive-aggressive lover of Shelia’s son Vince. He often also names Sheila herself, recently separated and now cut off from her son’s affections; awkward Reg who can’t conform to brutish masculinity; and his troubled fiancé Babs, hiding body dysmorphia.
But I’ve never heard him mention Vince himself – the anti-social teen artist with his firmly shut bedroom door and interest in fetishism.
I take it Waingels Bank is named after the school?
Ah! you know Waingels Copse! My mum taught there. I mean… way back…
I grew to love Reading when I moved away. When I was growing up I had problems. Being a very self-indulgent, frustrated twenty-something. I couldn’t really realise what I wanted to do. But then you realise it’s not Reading. I think when you’ve lived elsewhere you realise it’s just life.
So I think I held an unreasonable grudge. I mean, Reading’s very beautiful you know. I guess growing up in the suburbs you try to look for exoticism somewhere else, and overlooking what is interesting about any place. Having lived in Hungary… I remember taking someone from Hungary to Reading, and I think that opened up my eyes. You see Reading from their eyes.
When I started out it was like the big myth of “Why not go to New York or Transylvania and do something there?” It was always ‘get as far away as possible’.
I guess I started to relax a bit. I didn’t call it Reading, because we couldn’t shoot there, so we gave it a generic Thames Valley name – but in my mind, it’s Reading.
I’m not trying to be overly nice or nasty to it either. I’m just presenting it for what it is. But In Fabric is absolutely affectionate.
At one point Sheila says “this is a hard town to make friends in.”
Yeah. I think all towns are hard towns to make friends in, not just Reading. In cities you can find friends, especially if you have niche interests. In Reading it was very difficult to find people who had the same interests in me.
So that line that Marianne says is quite personal, yeah. I’m putting my personal life on screen now… You’ve got an answer out of me.
The store at the centre of the film, Dentley and Soper’s, will be familiar with anyone from Reading as being Jacksons department store.
I adored Jacksons. It was just a remarkable place. I got my school uniform there. I used to go with my mum, when she’d get her clothing.
I remember taking Trish and James from Broadcast…
(Broadcast contributed to the soundtrack of Berberian Sound Studio. In 2011 founder member Trish Keenan died, aged 42.)
The last time I saw Trish was at Jacksons’. She loved the pneumatic money systems. We met the woman who ran it. On the ground floor you had this haberdashery section and I loved the sound of the floor – it felt like you were walking on snow. The carpets, the wood panelling…
Strickland is gazing to one side, then suddenly refocusses and leans forward.
I was incredibly jealous of Endeavour. They shot an episode in Jacksons. It looks fantastic. I’m so jealous of that. Joe Thompson did that, who did In Fabric in terms of costumes. We missed the boat by six weeks. We wanted to shoot there and they had just started to gut it out. We could have done it six weeks earlier but something held me up.
I started off the film in a bad mood because we couldn’t shoot at Jacksons.
Speaking of being taken there, there’s a rather hallucinatory shot of the secret hosiery fetishist Reg, as small boy in the 70s, being taken to a store. The audience don’t see his face and if you look at his hand he’s actually a mannequin in that shot, wearing a fleece…
Yes! I’m aware that’s not accurate [for the time period]. I made a joke of the fleece really because that’s Reg’s trademark – I was trying to connect his fetishism with hosiery and the fleece and that very sexualised image he has from when he was a kid, of the zip going up on his fleece jacket. I like the fleece because it’s a very 90s thing. It’s kind of been ignored a little bit, and I wanted to kind of… fetishise the fleece.
It was only on a second watch that I noticed how insistent Reg was that he wanted his fleece back out the washing machine when Babs puts it in…
Oh, he’s got more than one fleece.
Oh he’s got multiple fleeces?
(Strickland nods.) Oh, yeah yeah yeah.
Reg’s hosiery fetish is connected to Carpathian Stockings. You have a general love of the region, but thinking of the witch-like store workers… Carpathia might invoke the brides of Dracula.
That was on purpose – to have this gothic myth to it. Nothing specific, as to whether they were witches or vampires – we just found the right outfit and makeup that gave it the right look.
[Store overseer] Mr Lundy is more like an Oracle. A sage who can give the right advice… But he is beholden to their passions.
Suspiria has come up in a few interviews. Which I’ve seen of course – it’s a great film and I know why it’s coming up. But it’s not an influence. When I wrote the script it just didn’t enter my mind at all.
At this point I suggest the film has more of an Amicus vibe, but surprisingly Strickland professes to have never heard of 70s British horror-anthology powerhouse Amicus Productions.
I think back to the film’s premiere at the London Film Festival. When the subject of the department store came up, he punched a fist in the air and announced emphatically:
“It’s not giallo. It’s Jacksons.”
Misidentification of Strickland’s influences does seem to irk him. In articles and at his Q&A showings the same names keep popping up, no matter how many times he shoots them down, and on occasion he can visibly wince.
You get compared to David Lynch sometimes, too…
When I first started I was massively into Lynch, hugely into him – and maybe subconsciously that’s carried through.
But people have compared me to Lynch to knock me down as well. I remember someone Skyping a friend connected to my film when we were in post-production, and the person on the other end didn’t know I was sitting next to my friend. He was talking about me in a rather pejorative manner and said “ask David Lynch, he’ll know” as in ‘ask me’. It was certainly not used in a positive manner.
“David Lynch” is kind of a shorthand for weird. But there’s so much strange cinema beyond David Lynch. I mean with the Duke of Burgundy, Mulholland Drive kept coming up, and it had nothing to do with Mulholland Drive! It didn’t even enter my mind, but again people think “women lovers, bit weird… David Lynch!”
I just think “Why don’t you go out and watch some films, and then come back and compare me with someone”.
The last few questions contain spoilers for In Fabric, so feel free to look away now.
How do you decide to have the dress strike when it does? Sheila in particular has it around for a while, but it strikes at a particular moment.
It’s just important to live with those characters, because if I’m not spending enough time with them then they’re just dispensable, and then they become just like pawns in some chess game and that’s not what I wanted I wanted it to be. I wanted to write it as if it’s a regular story and then show what happens when lightning strikes.
It’s about giving me enough time to fall in love with her. Same with Reg and Babs. They don’t get quite as much as Marianne… but that’s more of a money issue.
Even though it’s your most obviously comedic feature, In Fabric seems to be quite a sad film.
Absolutely. But I always enjoyed that. The classic example of that is Fargo – it’s incredibly tragic, but it’s hilarious as well. There’s this idea that just because you’re laughing it means you’re laughing at the characters and their fate. No! You can still laugh in the face of tragedy.
I’m not judging the characters and kidding them off. I don’t see them as consumerists. (Some critics have read In Fabric as a satire on consumerism.) There is a background of that in the film with the queue-jumping and fighting. But why shouldn’t Sheila buy that dress? There’s nothing wrong with going to a shop and buying something.
Reg and Babs – you might find them irritating sometimes but to me they’re a very devoted couple, a very sweet couple. It’s really important for me to love those characters.
It was the twin beds in Sheila’s bedroom, and the sound of her voice on the voicemail. She’s clearly re-recorded the household answering-machine message at the point her husband left, and you can hear the pain on the tape. That was the hidden tragedy for me.
I wanted [via cross-cutting] to show masturbation when she dies. Not for laughs but to show that awful thing where when someone dies you could be having the best time of your life. You’re completely unaware of your mum has just died, and it’s horrific. So I’m doing it to show how horrific and absurd life is.
But of course there’s a danger of people finding it funny. So by having the answer phone, the machine takes on that sadness. It came very late… That last day with Marianne we were in the bedroom and I just said “Can we just record you reading the answer machine differently each time?”
To me that’s the most upsetting scene in the film, just her voice. When she recorded it I was like, phew, I’ve got a lump in my throat. It’s completely unrealistic for a machine to take on the sadness of the situation, but it felt like a way of communicating the intention of the scene.
On the way out of the interview Peter asks if I still live in Reading. No, I left years ago and have mostly lived in London since, aside from two years in Japan. Like him, I felt the need to get away and live in another country for a bit. Maybe that’s Reading, I wonder. It instills a need to escape as far away as you can.
“No,” he replies, “that’s every town. That’s every town.”
In Fabric is in cinemas and on demand from 28 June. It’s great.