Mannequins and Memories: A Conversation with Peter Strickland

March 6, 2020
With their lavish mise-en-scène and meticulous audio design, Peter Strickland’s films have been compared to classic European art house cinema, horror and giallo movies.

His four narrative features – Katalin Varga (2009), Berberian Sound Studio (2012), The Duke of Burgundy (2014) and In Fabric (2018) ­– beautifully shot, with soundtracks by cutting edge musicians such as Broadcast, Steven Stapleton of Nurse With Wound, and Cat’s Eyes, create worlds that are similar, yet somehow different, from the everyday.

In Fabric could broadly be described as a horror story about a red dress and the people whose hands the garment passes through. Set in 1993, the film creates a dream-like version of an almost lost world of luxurious department stores, clunky answerphones, and newspaper lonely-hearts columns, through which it explores themes of desire, lust, family, work, consumerism and ritual. Throughout the film the everyday-familiar becomes gradually less recognisable, with suburban homes, department stores, workplaces and even roads, taking on a strange patina, becoming uncanny landscapes that seem to emphasise the psychological dislocations the mysterious dress creates to those who desire to wear it.

The crimson dress – described in the film as arterial red – is frequently played against a colour palette of green, gold, and black, creating a series of rich visual images, often haunting in their atmospheric evocation. In Fabric maintains a dreamlike quality, not only within the narrative which alludes to hypnotic states and haunted realities, but also through a dream logic that informs elements of the film. This is especially true in scenes set within the department store in which sales assistants – who wear matching black Victorian mourning dresses ­– seem to exist in their own reality, a world that appears to play on ideas of quasi-occult ritual as much as an arcane form of customer service.

There is an element of surrealism throughout In Fabric, emphasised by the presence of mannequins and moments that explore the strange relationship between people and these lifeless showroom dummies, between self and other. The uncanny presence of these mannequins also echoes the cover artwork of experimental group Nurse With Wound’s The Sylvie and Babs Hi-Fi Companion album, which had an influence on Strickland both visually and aurally.

In common with the director’s other films, and his ongoing interest with experimental music, In Fabric’s soundtrack and sound design form an essential component to the film. The relationship between these aural elements becoming almost fluid, further contributing to the horror film’s surreal atmosphere and adding to the increasing sense of dislocation the audience feel as the haunted narrative slowly unfolds.

Where did the idea for In Fabric come from, what inspired it?

I guess a mixture of things really, clothing was a big thing for me, not fashion, it’s not about that. It is more human anxieties related to clothing, so, fetishism, body dysmorphia. All to do with how you feel with clothing, how you feel you can’t escape your body, how you hate your body, or how you feel transformed. But also, when you see a shirt from someone, if it’s someone you hate you’re going to be disgusted by it, if it’s someone you love, you are going to get turned on by it.

The quality of personality within the clothing itself.

Yeah, it’s all to do with the association with humans, it’s not the clothing, it’s always the human imprint in the clothing, the stains, bodily stains, the smell of someone. I think clothing is haunted. If you go to a second-hand shop there are a lot of stories in that clothing.

Would you wear second-hand clothes? [pointing downwards] This is second-hand, this isn’t.

There is a weird proxy intimacy when you buy second-hand clothing. I’ve often smelled the previous owner, especially in the armpits. It’s a very weird feeling that you’re aware of someone else’s presence. So yeah, just this idea that there is a haunting to clothing… and dead people’s clothing, it’s very hard to get rid of a dead person’s clothing.

I’ve always been fascinated by objects, inanimate objects, but always in relation to human beings. There’s this weird magic to them – they can provoke some strong reactions – they can make you cry, they can give you a hard-on, they can do all kinds of things that you wouldn’t expect them to. And I think I was just trying to filter that into a genre tale.

That sense of clothes carrying a story was just really interesting, it was so strong that the dress was a protagonist is fascinating… and especially as the film switches from the first half to the second half.

Yes. The dress has to be the main character definitely. Which is not to devalue the characters whom I love but the dress is this irrational force, it’s not a punishing force. I don’t regard the lead characters as consumerists – I think Marianne’s [Jean-Baptiste] character [Sheila] has every right to buy a dress, why wouldn’t she? She needs that escapism. I really didn’t want to judge her or the other two characters, there was this background of consumerism with the fighting, the looting, the queues but I didn’t want to make it into a didactic “you must not shop film” kind of film. I’d feel like a hypocrite, I love shopping.

There’s a really haptic quality to the work, the tactility of the fabric, the tactility of skin, the tactility of the mannequin, and so on, you really seem to have a sense of people touching things (I see this in The Duke of Burgundy and in this)… is that something that you want to get across?

Yeah, it’s not really a plan, it’s just what I am into really. Part of cinema for me is texture, absolutely. Part of the music I love – if you can call it music – is texture. I think that’s such an important factor; texture and atmosphere, and it’s often discarded in terms of the conversations we have about cinema – it’s always about plot, which never really interested me. I love character, that is very important to me, characters in relation to atmosphere, characters in relation to objects. In In Fabric, this is what I come back to again and again, but it’s never an explicit plan.

What’s interesting, this is loosely connected to what you are talking about – is sound, the texture of sound. Someone asked me after The Duke of Burgundy, “are you interested in A.S.M.R?” I looked it up on the internet – autonomous sensory meridian response – and I was reading all the things about it and I thought “oh my god, everything I’ve done connects to this. But not only that, everything I am into connects to that.” All this music like Nurse With Wound, Current 93 to some degree, Luc Ferrari, Robert Ashley, a whole bunch of people – it all leads back to that. I always wondered why, coming from an art school background it was kind of drummed into you that you had to have an analytical response to something, and I never had that, I didn’t have this theoretical curiosity, and I thought “am I missing something?” but then the A.S.M.R thing validated my response. It was a visceral response, a sensual response, I wouldn’t call it erotic, but everything kind of made sense when I read that thing on the internet.    

But what’s interesting now is that In Fabric has a very conscious use of A.S.M.R, whereas the other films don’t, it’s a very naive use of it. And I am wondering, does that make it better, worse, or just different, I am not sure. I mean, now I am aware of it, I kind of feel I should lay off it a bit. I think in the future I might give it a rest. I think that’s the danger once you’re aware of something… I think the important thing as a filmmaker is to be a bit innocent, a bit naive, in how you do things.

Yes. To retain that curiosity as part of the process.

Yeah.

The sound is really noticeable for that quality in the film, and again with your previous works, but in this film what I noticed most was the soundtrack, the music and sound aspects. I thought it was fascinating the use of music…

And noise. Which you think is us doing the sound design but actually it’s not, it’s Tim [Gane aka Cavern of Anti Matter] on his synths, but distorting them so much.

But also, what I love about it, it’s like using Steve Stapleton’s [Nurse With Wound] music in my first film, that it feels like sound design. It’s that merging, that blurred boundary between what is music, what is sound, what is… I find that quite interesting. When you lose track of what is what. I quite like that confusion as someone in the audience, as a filmmaker I can’t get off on it because I know all the boundaries, but it’s good for the audience not to know all of those boundaries, and have that sense of not knowing.

With your evocation of Nurse With Wound, there’s brief sections of the film that are almost experimental – the montage of still images, the shopping images, where there’s a noise going, it almost acts like a musical reframe in the middle of each section – I thought it was almost like a move towards structural cinema.

I guess I was trying to catch the sound of the high street. It’s kind of like a haunted sound now. You feel the high street is on the way out – Amazon’s taking over. I just remember that sound very vividly as a kid, not only from the street, but also from television, you’d see these things about the high street and they’d have that sound, and we purposely used that library sound, though obviously we distorted it and so on. Originally it was finding the sense of ‘this is a haunted space’, finding the unfamiliar within the familiar.

Originally, one of the tasks I set myself was to do something a bit like M.R James, but in the most un-M.R James type of place, which would be the high street. And then think about key images that could retain that sensibility. So, doing a stocktake at 5:00 in the morning, and you look out of the window, and there’s an eerie queue of shoppers, or the mannequins… and also the fingers. I remember being very freaked out by Nurse With Wound’s [album] sleeve art to The Sylvie and Babs Hi-Fi Companion, you had this collage with this mannequin hand intruding.

…But yeah, I guess I wanted that, the mystery of shopping, because it’s such a prosaic activity. But again, if you just take that sound of the street in isolation, and have these images clearly of the past, there’s something quite strange about it.

In the film there is talk of dreams, is that something that is important to you, in your writing and directing process? Thinking about your dreams and keeping dream notes?

You know it’s really funny, I decided to keep a dream diary and as soon as I did that my dreams got really boring. I stuck at it for quite a few weeks and it was just really boring stuff, or even nothing. Once I let go of it, my dreams got interesting. But, in terms of my personal dreams, I don’t think that figures in it so much, but I think dream logic is very important for what I am doing. I think the cinema is a kind of dream state, it is a kind of hypnosis, and I think the films I really respond to have that; Lynch or Buñuel, the halfway house between dreams and reality.

Because you have that dream like quality, in In Fabric for example, with the woman going into the dumbwaiter, but it totally made sense.

Yeah. But it’s also a childhood perspective, a lot of this comes from my childhood – my experience of the shops, a lot of it is using that perspective which is almost drug like in a way – because you don’t have the chain of different associations that explains things, you see a dumbwaiter but “where does that go?” It might go to Hell… does it go to some crazy place… you don’t know the mechanics of things. The movement of women shopping in these places felt different, probably wasn’t, but everything seems more…

Or the way you dealt with time when she’s at the counter being served, that was totally that kid thing of waiting for your mum to get served and everything is going on around, and the woman working in the shop and the customers are just standing there. I loved that stuff. That’s a flashback to going shopping when I was five!

You’re the first person to mention that, because that’s what I wanted really, that wooziness of being a kid. The uncanniness of childhood really, everything feels…. Maybe it’s the seventies, maybe nothing is uncanny for children now. The seventies felt uncanny, put it that way.

I think the seventies were definitely uncanny.

I mean I remember dreams from when I was four years old.

I had mannequins in my dreams, scary mannequins. The whole mannequin thing, you know, the real mannequins I saw in the shops, which were very crudely designed back then, which made them much scarier. They had this very angular feel to them. The hands were always… the fingers were very long and thin.

Do you remember the Autons [plastic aliens who appeared as shop window mannequins] in Dr Who, whose hands went like that [demonstrates] and had lasers underneath?

You know what, I only saw it after writing In Fabric.

But, no, it came back to the Nurse With Wound thing, which seemed to tap into my childhood, that sleeve, the Sylvie and Babs album. But then the big revelation was Kienholz – who’s a sculptor – Edward Kienholz, who did these remarkable mannequins with resin dripping down their faces, really nightmarish. So that was a huge influence on the film. Definitely. This idea that mannequins feel human, they have pubic hair… And also the humans looking like mannequins as well, they take their wigs off…

That stuff is just beautiful, the woman in the shop taking her wig off, having that beautiful bald head.

But also, we talk about [sculptor] Allen Jones, his work, are they humans, are they mannequins? Sometimes you can’t tell. Are they humans made-up to look like mannequins?

That’s really interesting. The kind of eroticism of the uncanny.

Yes. Which always gets a good reaction, not always the reaction you want I should add.

In Fabric is in cinemas March 12, 2020

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