British director Peter Strickland has a reputation for remarkably odd films, from “The Duke of Burgundy” to “Berberian Sound Studio.” He makes horror films with biting humor and weirdness, and his latest, “In Fabric,” lives up to his reputation.
Most of the action takes place in a British women’s store, Dentley & Soper’s, that is constantly having a can’t-miss sale, with adoring shoppers lining up daily for the doors to open.
Inside, they find the most peculiar manager and shop clerks, if you can call them that. They look like animated mannequins, and that’s not much of a stretch when you see what these clerks do with the mannequins after hours.
The head clerk, Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed), speaks in grandiloquent language, as if purchasing a particular dress is some sort of statement about life itself. She says things like, “Did the transaction validate your paradigm of consumerism?” She wears a costume that looks like it’s straight out of Dickens, with puffy black lace sleeves and an elaborate wig.
The constant TV commercials for the store catch the eye of Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste, probably best known for Mike Leigh’s “Secrets & Lies”), a single mother and bank clerk whose estranged husband is moving on to another woman. When Sheila finds this out from her adult son, played by Jaygann Ayeh, she decides to move on, too, and starts looking for love on an internet dating site.
When she finds what might be the right man, she needs a new dress for the date, and heads to Dentley & Soper’s. Little does she know that she’s walking into the weirdest shopping experience ever.
Much of the humor during this episode comes with the contrasting styles of the clerk and the shopper. Jean-Baptiste’s Sheila is unsure of herself, wanting to look good for the date but wondering whether a red dress she is considering is too daring. It’s said to be one-of-a-kind, and that’s understating the case.
Miss Luckmoore, meanwhile, waxes rhapsodic about the dress and its mysteries – in florid language that is markedly in contrast with Sheila’s down-to-earth considerations.
Sheila’s ultimate decision to buy the dress puts her in a situation that seems like an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”
Her life is further complicated by a torrid sleepover romance her son is having with a lover played by Gwendoline Christie, who likes to swill Sheila’s booze and moan ecstatically – and loudly – during sex.
All of this comes to a bizarre end by the movie’s midpoint – and the dress moves on to yet another home, via a thrift shop purchase.
And if you think Sheila’s experience was odd, just wait till you see the episode involving a bachelor party featuring the red dress.
Strickland has developed a following for his oddities, and that following is deserved. He takes the premise of a genre film and twists it into such weird pretzels that you can’t help but stare in admiration and perplexity. Where does he come up with these storylines?
“In Fabric” premiered at the Toronto international Film Festival, and it generated such buzz that an extra screening was added to that schedule.
It had its U.S. premiere last week at Fantastic Fest and screens again at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 27. Grade: B-