Peter Strickland’s In Fabric isn’t for the faint-hearted or unimaginative moviegoer. It is demanding, challenging, off-putting and vexing, and it’s one of the most dazzling films of the year. It’s an hypnotic, fever dream following three people victimized by a red silk dress, purchased during the holiday department store sales in London. Strickland’s glorious multi-faceted high art comedy/drama/horror film stars Marianne Jean-Baptiste as the first woman who buys the dress as she prepares to go on a blind date. I spoke with Strickland and Jean-Baptiste in Toronto during TIFF.
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Anne Brodie: So, Peter, In Fabric, who are you? I saw Duke of Burgundy and this is just as mind-bending. You completely destroy convention.
Peter Strickland: It’s very nice to hear that. For me, this feels very grounded in reality.
Anne Brodie: And yet it’s intertwined with these strange speeches and this refinement, these incredible refinements, almost old master classical stuff, along with the genre elements. It’s just a marriage of so many different things. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Peter Strickland: Interesting. Thank you. It’s — really, because I think they’re all exaggerations of real life, so I think we all know whether we work in a store or go to stores that there is a performative element to working in them and dealing with the public. The language can be decorative or euphemistic. Even at the job center, I mean, I haven’t been in a while that I last went to the job center, to work in the supermarket and stack shelves in the night shift. They call it “twilight replenishment operative.” So, I’m just extending. It’s like an elastic band. You’re just stretching it as much as you can, but you still have to connect it to reality and those jobs, you know, the bank and the passive-aggressive thing. We’ve all been there. It was important to kind of have it relatable and to have characters who have regular lives and who needed to find an escape, find transformation. So, it’s very important for Sheila (Jean-Baptiste) to deserve that dress, and not to be punished, which is not being punished, it’s a random act like cancer was a random act. There’s no logic to it.
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Anne Brodie: She’s the only victim who is kind of flawless. I mean, she’s not — you really want the other two to have a kind of comeuppance –
Marianne Jean-Baptiste: Yeah. I can see where you’re going with that. I can. I think what’s interesting is us as humans, we are still looking for reasons to punish. It’s almost like it’s a punishment. You deserve it, you deserve to die, you don’t. I can justify you die because you told that guy to F off, but she’s not totally — but she’s just serving her son and kind of neglecting herself but she doesn’t deserve to die. I mean, it sounds quite ridiculous.
Peter Strickland: Sheila spies on her son.
Marianne Jean-Baptiste: And spoils him.
Peter Strickland: But Vince is — again, he’s rude, but he’s actually very loving towards his mom. He defends her against Gwen. You know, he gets her clothes from the hospital. So, to me, most of the characters are just human flawed characters, who I have a lot of fun
Anne Brodie: But you extenuate them so much and it naturally works. We’re like watching a boxing match or something. You want the person who didn’t who wasn’t awful to win.
Marianne Jean-Baptiste: Yeah. I know what you mean. I do.
Peter Strickland: But yeah, for me, I had to love the characters. It’s very important for me, at least, to not want them to die. I had to just — you know.
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Anne Brodie: We’re talking about a dress that murders people.
Peter Strickland: Yes.
Anne Brodie: What a great idea. What was the birth of this idea?
Peter Strickland: Well, it was more a genre devised to explore haunting to do with clothing and human presence in clothing and going to an inappropriate level of this taboo aspect of bodily fluids on clothing; sweat, cum, menstrual blood, all these things. It’s all introduced in the idea, semen, all these things. And what that introduces about the person who works for you, the charity shops, the idea of the film is to just provoke discussion. The conversation about she has dreamed her dead mother, how — if I put a shirt, hang it here, it’s the control shirt, no one’s worn it, it’s a control shirt, but I can tell you, someone in your family who’s died recently, that was their shirt.
Anne Brodie: Right.
Peter Strickland: Someone you’re sexually attracted to, that’s their shirt. Someone who you find absolutely — you can’t stand their shirt; you’re disgusted by it. So again, Sheila, when she sees Gwen’s underwear, disgust. Vince loves her underwear so much; he’ll have his face printed on her underwear. And it’s exploring all these — Reg with his thigh fetish, and —
Anne Brodie: There are so many great moments in this film. The attention to detail is astonishing. Cinematic stuff, stuff that pushes the story forward and the character details, for one thing, am I dreaming again? Or are you shooting her in angled spaces for unease, in staircases, dumb waiters, peering through things and going into tiny rooms?
Peter Strickland: We had no time. It was such a tight schedule.
Anne Brodie: Marianne, your character is a single woman looking for love, which is a horror in its own because you know, let’s face it.
Marianne Jean-Baptiste: That is the horror.
Anne Brodie: Really, I mean, just to have a companion, you put yourself out there in potential danger. You’re married, but do you remember what it was like, the horrors of it?
Marianne Jean-Baptiste: Oh gosh, no. I’ve been married for so long. I actually don’t. I have friends who talk about nightmarish things that happened to them, but for me, not so much.
Anne Brodie: Your character changes her voicemail, and I found that to be incredibly striking. Holy cow!
Marianne Jean-Baptiste: Yeah, I found that to be striking.
Peter Strickland: I almost cried when you did the third one.
Marianne Jean-Baptiste: Yeah, it was like, I almost cried when I did the third one. Because it’s little things like that, that when you get invited to visit Stricklandland, that is so satisfying, because we’re going to do this voiceover bit, blah, blah, blah. “Oh no. Really? I thought we’d done?” “No, no, no, it’s just for the voice machine.” And you go, “The bloody voice machine, not recording that.” And then you go and you suddenly go, “Yeah, but this is what I want,” and all of a sudden, you start going, “Oh my God, this is great. It’s going to be brilliant to do it.” And then you do that and when you watch it, it’s like — yeah. And what’s interesting about it as well is the message becomes more disturbing, but it’s actually when she should be getting happier. Because she’s just like, this guy, everything’s hopeful, everything’s wonderful.
Anne Brodie: Who stitched the message into the dress?
Peter Strickland: Oh, someone who stitched that, having that life, committed suicide and cursed it. It’s getting to all kinds of ethical problems of looking down on the sweatshop, it just felt wrong. It’s actually much more interesting to move the sweatshop to the end of the film, after all these characters end up there, going back in the cycle and their blood actually makes new dresses. And again, it’s like body fluids, you know, every time you put something in the wash, it has a bit of your sweat, a bit of something. So that was really a big change for me in the script.
Anne Brodie: Wow!
Peter Strickland: And also, the important thing about the dress is it must not be judgmental, it must be random. Because if it’s judgmental, it’s too logical, it’s too simple. You have sex and you’re punished. Why should you be punished for that? Why should Sheila be punished for buying a dress? So, it’s illogical. It’s random just like life; illogical and random. And that’s what makes it more terrifying for me. No motive, no motive. I mean, there was a consumerist satire in the background, but not with the main characters. There’s the element of fighting at the end, but it’s playful, it’s satirical. It’s not its overly moralistic message, which I don’t like doing really. I love neurotic filmmaking.
Anne Brodie: So interesting. Do you know Guy Maddin?
Peter Strickland: I know Guy. I emailed him today.
Anne Brodie: The two of you — what?
Peter Strickland: I emailed him this morning.
Anne Brodie: Because you’re kind of like cousins, artistic cousins.
Peter Strickland: He actually helped me with this film.
Anne Brodie: Did he?
Peter Strickland: Yeah, he helped. I can’t really say —
BFCA BTJA AWFJ TFCA FIPRESCI