Middle-aged and newly divorced, Marianne is ready to start looking for a new man, much to the dismay of her adult son Vince (Jaygann Ayeh) – an art student still living at home and whose snooty girlfriend Gwen (Gwendoline Christie) is resented by Marianne in turn.
With a big date on the horizon, Marianne wants to look her best and so fate brings her to the department store of Dentley and Soper, where she encounters exotically accented shop assistant Miss Luckmore (Fatma Mohamed), apparently a member of some kind of Satanic cabal.
Enticed by Miss Luckmore’s largely incomprehensible sales pitch, Marianne buys a slinky red dress that proves to have magical properties, sadly not the kind that are advantageous to the wearer. Inexplicable rashes are only the beginning. But once acquired, it turns out, the item is not so easily disposed of.
All this is as absurd as sounds, and a good portion of In Fabric is openly played for laughs, notably the scenes in which Sheila is harangued by her employers (Steve Oram and Julian Barrett), sinister pedants with a fixation on toilet breaks.
The silliness factor is upped still further with a second plotline, involving a washing machine repairman named Reg Speaks (Leo Bill) whose grasp of technical minutiae has the power to put those around him in a trance of boredom.
In Fabric has something in common with the work of Nicolas Winding Refn, or Luca Guadagnino’s grimly tedious remake of Dario Argento’s Suspiria: not so much genre movies as glosses on genre movies, where notions of fetishism and perversity are contemplated from afar.
In other words, this is not the film to see if you’re after a sleazy good time. It’s more like a game of hunt the symbol, with possible interpretations scattered so thickly it is hard to pick just one.
Anxiety about sex is one recurring motif, both in the somewhat Oedipal relationship between Sheila and Vince and in the seemingly passivity of Reg, who finds himself wearing the red dress on his bucks night.
Race, an equally charged subject, is touched on in only a glancing way. But in a film so concerned with colour, it doesn’t seem accidental that Sheila is black, especially given the exaggerated white make-up of Miss Luckmore and her cabal.
Less cagily handled is the issue of class: the contrast between the glamour that is the product of the fashion industry and the drab lives of the workers behind the scenes. Hence the mix of contrasting tones, with romantic entrancement giving way to grotty British humour—as in the work of Alfred Hitchcock, though the transitions are handled much less deftly.
The film could be seen as referring back to itself, dramatising Strickland’s ambivalent relationship with his own European influences. Sheila’s efforts to return the dress suggest a Brexit allegory, while the shop assistants’ doubletalk has echoes of abstruse Continental theory, a lure for British academics from the 1970s on.
Any way you look at it, this is a film with a split personality: the notion of beauty as evil is partly tongue-in-cheek and partly not, as if Strickland were asking himself, guiltily, “Ought I to be an artist?” The question, however, may be premature depending on whether you think he is one.
Jake Wilson is a film critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.