“One sensation of mind, one fabric in recollection of touch.”
– Saleswoman Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed), waxing typically gnomic, in In Fabric (Peter Strickland, 2018).

Peter Strickland’s latest hyper-stylised valentine to oddball European genre film, In Fabric, not only hearkens back to the off-kilter glories of ’60s and ’70s softcore Euro horror via The Office (Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, 2001-03) and kitchen sink – or more aptly, washing machine – drama, but is also imbued with echoes of a distinctly synaesthetic strain of surrealism.

One’s senses don’t need be working overtime to see, hear, smell, touch, taste much in In Fabric that evokes the theory and practice of Jan Švankmajer, as well as that of certain other surrealist artist-filmmakers.

In mining the animate life of an alluring item of clothing – an object of an order typically presumed inanimate – to humorously discomforting ends, In Fabric essays a fetishistic (even sadistic) emphasis on the sense of touch, per Jan Švankmajer’s experiments in Touching and Imagining (1983, in its original samizdat edition), which he brought to full cinematic fruition in 1996’s Conspirators of Pleasure.

The joy of touch in Jan Švankmajer’s Conspirators of Pleasure (1996)

In that unforgettable feature, the ecstasies of six conspirators in an elaborate autoerotic roundelay are painstakingly achieved, the better that their sensations be absurdly painstakingly received by the audience.1 In Fabric similarly threads together horror and comedy, conflating agonies and ecstasies for its characters and viewers alike. Švankmajer has pronounced “Objects have always been more living for me than people”;2 the same can be said of In Fabric, in which the most compelling (and most enduring) character is the “Ambassadorial Function Dress” from Dentley & Soper’s Trusted Department Store, a murderous one-off form-fitting garment in lurid “artery red”.

Whether billowing in mid-air, as if aloft purely as a function of its own slinky malevolence; adhering itself to the diverse array of bodies it clothes, or being stroked against another’s skin by sinister department store staff, this dress ever transmits a delightful, slippery silkiness to the beholder. But no sooner is it removed from a body than it leaves terrible rashes no less felt by the viewer sensitive to haptic visions – and communicative, suddenly, of sensations rather more painful than pleasurable.

The billowing dress…

…and its legacy, the rash, in In Fabric

In Touching and Imagining, Jan Švankmajer compiled an anthology of tactile art inspirations. The following passage, excerpted from The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, is notable – and not just for the first of the materials invoked:

I had invented and worked out to the last detail the tactile cinema which would enable the spectator by an extremely simple mechanism to touch everything in synchronism with what he saw: silk fabrics, fur, oysters, flesh, sand, dog, etc. Objects destined for the most secret physical and psychological pleasures. Among the latter were distasteful objects […] These objects were made to exasperate the nerves to the limit, while preparing the agreeable discharge which the mind would experience at the moment of throwing the other kind of object that breaks so gratifyingly with the pleasant noise of a bottle being opened – plop.3

Here is described the pleasure-pain dialectic intrinsic to the punishing nature of the enjoyment to be gleaned from In Fabric. The film (the dress!) delights in killing off perfectly sympathetic characters. How fiendish! How perversely enjoyable! Of course, Strickland has form; the dynamics of a sadomasochistic relationship are the very narrative core of his previous feature, The Duke of Burgundy (2014).

Dalí missed a trick in underestimating the power of cinema in the hands of an expert – read, obsessive – technician of atmospherics such as Strickland; Dalí’s sought-after sensations are perfectly transmissible without anything so lumpenly literal as having to oblige a viewer to touch items off-screen corresponding to on-screen counterparts. (I would conjecture that the viewer would only receive any real frissons from Dalí’s conception of tactile cinema were they to handle objects at odds with what’s shown on screen.)

Synaesthesia is pervasive across Strickland’s cinema. Consider Berberian Sound Studio (2012), a film about the making of a motion picture which, barring its stunning, Cremator-esque4 title sequence, is never seen, only heard – although conversely, those sounds are vividly visualised by the foley artists producing them.

Consider too the susurration that permeates his films’ soundtracks, sometimes subtly, or, per In Fabric, often aggressively, informed by the director’s latterly raised awareness of his own ASMR predilection5 – a bodily response to certain trigger sounds received in a pleasurably tingly fashion.

There’s also The Duke of Burgundy’s droll credit during its winsome opening titles, “Perfume by Je suis Gizella”, inviting the viewer to luxuriantly, if impossibly, engage a sense scarcely employed when appreciating cinema – outside of John Waters’ scratch-and-sniff-card-augmented “Odorama” created for Polyester in 1981.

Laundering the lingerie in The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland, 2014)

The Duke of Burgundy is awash with fetishistic, synaesthetic visions, meant to be felt just as they’re seen, by the submissive Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) equally as by the submissive viewer, in contemplation of sudsy lingerie requiring very particular handling, or in the diligent polishing of leather boots – the latter item especially redolent of surrealist forebears. Think of Švankmajer’s newsreader in Conspirators of Pleasure, who gets off on having her toes sucked by carp as she broadcasts live-to-air, or a long, l-o-o-o-ng line of characters populating the cinema of Luis Buñuel.

But think especially of the blood-spattered foot-and footwear-fetishist short film of Strickland’s own, The Cobbler’s Lot.6 Concerning two cobbler brothers vying for the hand (or more accurately, the “asphodel slippers”) in marriage of a Carpathian princess, The Cobbler’s Lot puts me in mind of, firstly, Guy Maddin, but also these words from Jan Švankmajer regarding working with a fetish (African, that is, rather than strictly psychosexual per se…):

Communicating with a fetish […] is a dynamic dialogue, a sadistic relationship leading to the pounding of nails and tins to signal an agreement, to the feeding of a fetish with corn meal and fresh blood, so that it has the strength to fulfil our wishes…7

Moreover…

But precisely because fetishes are about a magic responsibility, it is necessary to proceed carefully so that the powers of the fetish do not turn against us.8

Strickland is probably not in any great peril – I expect he’s negotiated a safe word with his fetish (“Pinastri”, no doubt) and I trust he engages in more “meaningful” handshakes with it than those that poor, doomed Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) was officially notified of in In Fabric. Nonetheless, his cinema is a cobbler’s lot indeed, and one to be felt every bit as much as seen – for are they not oftentimes one and the same sensation? For creator and viewer alike…

Endnotes:

  1. For a backgrounding in the tactile art experimentation that informed the production and synaesthetic aspirations of this film, see my article “The Exquisite Ecstasy and Agony of Jan Švankmajer’s Conspirators of Pleasure” in Senses of Cinema, no. 71, June 2014).
  2. Švankmajer in Jan Švankmajer, Bruno Solařík (ed.), Nathan Fields and Robert Russell (trans.), CPress, Brno, 2018, p. 58. Švankmajer has of course said words to this effect countless times elsewhere before.
  3. Dalí in The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, Haakon M. Chevalier (trans.), Dover Publications, New York, 1993, p. 290.
  4. Juraj Herz’s film Spalovač mrtvol (The Cremator, 1969). Strickland has stated that The Cremator’s title sequence was an inspiration in an article in The Quietus in which he (mistakenly, I believe) attributes it to Jan Švankmajer. See Basia Lewandowska Cummings, “Foley Cow! Berberian Sound Studio Director Peter Strickland Interviewed”, The Quietus, 31 August 2012.
  5. Strickland speaks of his susceptibility to an autonomous sensory meridian response in an interview by Lara C Cory in The Wire, August 2018, https://www.thewire.co.uk/in-writing/interviews/peter-strickland-interview-by-larac-cory.
  6. Made for the 2018 horror anthology The Field Guide to Evil.
  7. Švankmajer, p. 192.
  8. Ibid.