In Fabric (2019)

There’s no better way to convey how divisive of a film In Fabric is than to recount an utterly mortifying social confrontation I had while watching it. Sometime during the first act of our Overlook Film Fest screening of the picture, a woman leaned over to scold me for laughing at its absurdity. She explained that what we were watching was “not a comedy” and that my amusement was ruining her own experience of the film. The general subjectivity of humor aside, I was a little shocked that someone could be taking this giallo pastiche about a killer dress 100% seriously. Even with time, as the humor of the picture became more blatant & undeniable, my finger-wagging nemesis ended up laughing through much of the absurdity on display. I do somewhat understand where she was coming from in her initial annoyance with my laughter, though. In Fabric is a gorgeous, pristinely crafted object on a pure sensory level. Set in a high-end department store (of the damned) in 1980s London, the film’s prêt-à-porter fashion and sexually arranged mannequins cheekily poke fun at the pretentions of European arthouse horrors of yesteryear, while also genuinely indulging in the sensory pleasures therein. It may be a high-fashion variation on killer-object horrors like Velvet Buzzsaw, Maximum Overdrive, and Death Bed: The Bed that Eats, but it presents its murderous dress and the department store weirdos who worship it in a genuinely chilling arthouse horror context. A lot of my personal amusement with In Fabric derived from that tension between form and content; it’s a beautiful arthouse horror film about a demonically possessed dress that flies through the air to kill its cursed victims. I do contend that the film is openly joking throughout in its absurdism, though; it just apparently takes a particular comedic temperament to immediately lock into its humor.

On a practical level, In Fabric essentially functions as a horror anthology. We watch in abject terror (or delirious amusement) as a cursed red cocktail dress drifts through the lives of several unwitting, unlucky victims. Like the magical Traveling Pants of the early aughts, this dress mysteriously conforms to the size & body type of each poor soul who dares wear it. It also marks each victim with an identical rash on their chests, then systematically ruins their work & homelives until the dress is all they have left. The dress doesn’t only cause damage through curses & misfortunes. It mangles washing machines, causes car accidents, and flies through the night like a vampiric ghoul – all with sentient intent. The only constant in these crimes of fashion is a network of Nosferatu-type department store employees who seemingly worship the murderous dress as their Dark Lord. These saleswomen and their ghoulish manager also worship the smooth plastic crotches of their store mannequins, which they pay tribute to in appreciative cunnilingual rituals. Customers are lured to the store with Tim & Eric-style television ads for a seemingly never-ending sale. Once inside, they are seduced in absurdly purple dialogue from the demonic saleswomen, who coax them into purchasing their doom. Everything in In Fabric is deliriously overwritten. Saleswomen pontificate on the philosophy of dress sizes as if they were discussing Sartre. The department store doesn’t have a dressing room; it has a Transformation Sphere (which looks & functions exactly like a dressing room). The soundtrack is provided by a maybe-fictional band called Cavern of Anti-Matter. The film is wholly committed to over-the-top excess in every frame & decision, whether it’s indulging in an artsy collage of vintage fashion catalog advertisements or deploying a killer dress to dispose of a goofball victim entirely unaware of the occultist backstory of their sartorial selections. It’s both funny and chilling, beautiful and ludicrous. It’s perfect, as long as you can tune into its left-of-the-dial demonic frequency.

Director Peter Strickland has pulled off this same balancing act between sensual art & sly humor before in Berberian Sound Studio & The Duke of Burgundy, but I personally believe In Fabric to be his most outright silly film to date. If you want to take the film 100% seriously, it leaves you a lot of room to do so, especially in the way it peeks in on fetishistic sex through bedroom keyholes and the way it uses its genre film premise to extensively discuss the politics of labor & corporate management. I don’t believe you’re fully appreciating what the film has to offer, though, if you don’t allow to yourself to be chilled by its arthouse scares and tickled by its over-the-top camp. I wonder if the woman who sternly shushed me for laughing in the first act enjoyed the picture as much as I did, or if its ultimate veer into full-blown silliness was a disappointment for her. Personally, I don’t think its giallo-flavored sexuality or labor-relations philosophy would’ve shined quite as vividly if the camp & excess weren’t there to provide contrast. I loved In Fabric for all its lush sensory pleasures, old-school horror creep-outs, and delirious indulgences in campy absurdism – while I can also see any one of those elements detracting from someone else’s enjoyment, depending on their own expectations & default sensibilities.

-Brandon Ledet

The Field Guide to Evil (2019)

In theory, I understand the thinking behind programming a horror anthology like The Field Guide to Evil in the late-night slot at an arthouse theater or on the festival circuit. This is a format typically populated by 80-minute creature feature showcases, where a few like-minded directors put in wildly different short films only tied together by a flimsy wraparound. They’re an excuse to sample different tones & onscreen monsters in bite-sized horror morsels. The classic horror anthology in a genre film nerd party in that way, so it makes sense to relegate them to the late-night slot when those freaks (us) tend to come out. The Field Guide to Evil is a different beast entirely, though. At nearly two hours and often academic in tone, this is a film that would benefit from the sober light of the afternoon rather than the rowdy eeriness of a midnight screening. It’s too long, too dry, and too tonally consistent to satisfy the usual criteria of a fun, breezy horror anthology – which means a lot of festival goers & late night partiers are going to fight the urge to doze off midway through the picture, through no fault of the film’s. It’s just an experience that requires a little alertness in a proper atmosphere.

Whereas most horror anthologies are harshly criticized for being wildly inconsistent in quality & tone from segment to segment, it’s that very variation that gives the format an inherent sense of excitement. Featuring nine filmmakers from eight different countries, you’d think that The Filed Guide to Evil would traffic in that traditional inconsistency, but it’s a very cohesive, evenly curated piece – almost to a fault. The central, unifying conceit of the collection is clear in a way few anthologies are: some of the most exciting new filmmakers in the horror genre (all veterans of Fantastic Film Fest) are gathered to adapt folklore tales from their home countries in any way they see fit. Cautionary tales about djinns, goblins, demons, and witches vary only slightly across national borders, establishing a kind of Brothers Grimm collection for the “elevated horror” era. As an international horror folklore omnibus, the entirety of Field Guide recalls recent genre outliers like The Witch, November, and Tale of Tales, titles that look back to the fantasies & moralistic norms of the past to terrify audiences & diagnose societal ills of the present. The atmosphere, imagery, and academic discussion that arise from that end of the horror filmmaking spectrum can fascinate in the way they stir up an old-world sense of dread. However, it’s also a storytelling mode that requires a little patience & a lot of forgiveness for abrupt, obscured conclusions – which can be very trying at this length with this overwhelming wealth of contributors, especially at a late hour.

As a voracious horror nerd who feels absolutely spoiled by the wealth of talent & #content out there in the current landscape, I found plenty to be excited by in this picture’s impressive lineup of filmmakers. Any anthology that manages to feature contributions from Peter Strickland (The Duke of Burgundy), Agnieszka Smoczynska (The Lure), Veronika Franz, and Severin Fiala (Goodnight Mommy) is automatically going to have my attention. I suspect my biases there determined most of my preferences for individual vignettes. Those specific contributors’ segments were all clear favorites for me, while filmmakers I knew nothing about or whose work I don’t appreciate as much (Baskin’s Can Evrenol, to name names) left me a little cold . . and very sleepy. Strickland’s concluding segment was a particular must-see standout, one that reimagines German Expressionist horror filmmaking in a new, vibrantly psychedelic light I felt lucky to catch on the big screen. I was so deliriously exhausted by the time that conclusion arrived, however, that I feel like I owe it a bright-eyed sober rewatch over a morning coffee to fully soak it in. It’s a dark blessing that this anthology was released on VOD the same weekend as it hit arthouse theaters; most venues are going to be tempted to screen it in a late-hour cult movie slot that does its slow, peculiar rhythms a disservice. As is, I was thrilled by individual images & ideas on display in this horror folklore collection, but too exhausted by its late-night time slot to recall it vividly; it lingers in my mind only as a half-remembered nightmare. I’m hoping I can remedy that dilemma soon with an early morning revisit on my couch.

-Brandon Ledet

Berberian Sound Studio’s (2013) Sound-Obsessed Roots in Blow Out (1981)

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During our Swampchat discussion of June’s Movie of the Month, the Brian De Palma political thriller Blow Out, I pointed out that “Blow Out is in some ways a movie about making movies, but more specifically it’s a movie about how essential sound is to film. It boils the medium down to one of its more intangible elements. In that way it’s much more unique than a lot of other movies about movies, arriving more than three decades before the film it most closely resembles in this approach (that I can recall, anyway), Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio.” The entire time I was watching Blow Out I was aching to revisit Peter Strickland’s oddly engaging Berberian Sound Studio to see how the two films compare. It turns out that while Blow Out distills the process of making movies into a single element, recording sound, Berberian Sound Studio breaks it down even further until there is nothing left. De Palma used sound recording as an anchoring element for a story that had great impact outside the world of film-making, a world tainted by serial murders & political intrigue. Strickland’s film, on the other hand, rarely allowed the audience to leave the recording booth & gets lost in its own sound-obsession.

Although they are working within separate genres with their own respective aims & are separated by three decades of film-making, it’s not at all difficult to draw a connection between the two works. First of all, they’re connected by their basic movie-within-a-movie structure. In Blow Out, Travolta’s sound technician protagonist is working on a cheap slasher film for which he cannot find an actress with the perfect scream to match a brutal shower stabbing. When asked if he ever works on good films, Travolta responds “No, just bad ones.” The befuddled sound technician in Berberian (expertly played by character actor Tobey Jones), on the other hand, is hired for an Itallian giallo film called The Equestrian Vortex that also gradually proves itself to be a tawdry, violent horror film (although the director insists they’re making art). We’ve explored the giallo lineage of slasher films before in our discussions of former Movie of the Month Blood & Black Lace, but the connection is rarely as clear as it is in the comparison here. While Travolta is looking for a single scream to accompany his cheap slasher movie (when he’s not investigating assassinations in his free time), Berberian Sound Studio depicts countless micro-searches for the exact same thing. The exact sound of a neck being sliced or a witch’s hair being yanked from the scalp or even the standard damsel’s death rattle are all meticulously sought after here. Berberian depicts a wizardly crew of demented Gallaghers smashing melons, pulling turnip roots, and tormenting actresses to capture the perfect sounds for what amounts to a slightly artier version of the trash that Travolta’s is mindlessly cranking out in Blow Out.

However, as stated, the films do have disparate aims for their respective sound obsessions. Blow Out uses sound as a doorway to a world outside the recording booth. It’s a dangerous world, but it’s an exterior one where big, important things are happening. Berberian Sound Studio, in contrast, becomes psychedelically insular. It not only gets lost in the recording booth, but also in the idea of sound itself. There’s so much horror & dissociation in the sound techniques employed in the film that it reaches an otherworldly state of mind that mimics the broken psyche of Bergman’s Persona just as much as anything it echoes from De Palma’s film. When you watch Berberian on Netflix with the closed captions enabled, the screen is filled with ludicrously long lists of sound descriptions desperately trying to keep up with every aural element in play. Early in the film a character ominously warns/promises, “A new world of sound awaits you. A world that requires all your magic powers.” It’s doubtful that the protagonist or most of the audience took him as literally as he meant it, but Berberian really is a lot more interested in the magic of sound than the more technically-minded Blow Out.

If I had to boil down the difference between the two films, I’d simply point out that Travolta’s protagonist spends most of his run time trying to piece together a crime scene & to capture a maniac killer, while Jones’ character is trying to get reimbursed for an airline ticket & to hold onto his basic sanity. De Palma’s approach weaponized sound to strengthen his political thriller’s arsenal. For Strickland, sound wasn’t a powerful tool; it was the entire point. The movies do share an impressive amount  of overlap, though, especially in Blow Out’s early, growling winds & in both film’s audiophile obsession with analog equipment. It’s difficult to imagine either film could be set in 2015 without being changed drastically. It’s doubtful that either film would mean much of anything once digital equipment removed a lot of the incidental sound from recording booths. The clacking & whirring of film projectors and tape recorders are essentially the two films’ lifeblood. Even the sound of the instruments that capture & display images are essential to cinema in these two films’ worldview. That’s the kind of synesthesia we’re working with here: there’s a sound even to the imagery. Blow Out just happens to use this attention to sound to open a door, while Berberian chooses to lock itself in the dark & swallow the key. They’re both overwhelmingly successful in their respective endeavors.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, 1981’s Blow Out, visit last week’s Swampchat on the film.

-Brandon Ledet

The Duke of Burgundy (2015)

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It’s difficult to explain in print exactly why, but Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy may be the most uncommercial film about a BDSM-leaning lesbian relationship possible. Although Strickland’s film has sensuality to spare, it deliberately strays from being exploitative, choosing to explore the central couple’s universally relatable struggles with selflessness & compromise instead of engaging in typical blank leering. There’s a sexual element at play in nearly every scene, but the film is more romantic than voyeuristic. The Duke of Burgundy is a portrait of a long-term relationship’s struggling to find balance, with the more unique elements of the role playing games shared by its same sex partners functioning more as a detail that provides specificity than as an overwhelming fetishistic obsession. Strickland has found a balance here that threatens to tip in a disastrous direction at almost every turn, but instead holds steady, much like the romantic balance found within the film’s central relationship.

It’s not only the refusal to perv out that will keep The Duke of Burgundy from reaching a mass scale audience. It’s also a deliberately “artsy” film that luxuriates in its own gorgeous images & atmosphere, like a sex-tinged The Spirit of the Beehive. Strickland carves out a natural world here (as he did before in last year’s Bjork concert film, Biophilia Live), filling the frame with running water, wriggling insects, rustling tree limbs, and beating wings of moths & butterflies. So much of the film is composed of nature, books, lingerie, and women (I don’t think a single man appears on-screen), that a distinctly insular vibe is achieved, as if the entire film takes place within a cocoon. It attempts more of a preciously delicate visual aesthetic than it does a traditional, straight-forward narrative.

The Duke of Burgundy’s varied shots of a butterfly & moth filled specimen room sets a tone for how the film operates. It’s a narrative that relies on repetition & ritual, much like the repetition of a specific butterfly specimen is repeated within the display cases. Similarly, each image is tacked to the wall, hovering to be appreciated like a precious, organic object. Strickland finds emotional resonance in the film’s central relationship, but he also spends inordinate amounts of time reveling in the textures of the world that surrounds them. Filming the couple through mirrors, fringes, and fabrics, Strickland finds the same reverence for the sense of touch here that he did for sound in his 2013 ode to giallo, Berberian Sound Studio. It’s a challenging prospect for viewers, but the rewards are glorious.

Warnings of tasteful sensuality & highfaluting cinematography aside, The Duke of Burgundy is a lot more playful than you would expect from art house fare of its caliber. Sure, the film has a stuffy, old-fashioned vibe with interiors that are far more likely to conjure the words “parlor” & “boudoir” rather than “living room” & “bedroom”, but it also lets on that it’s self-aware of that vibe as early as the opening credits when it provides a title card that reads “Perfume by Je Suis Gizella.” Also, although the film’s central BDSM relationship has a serious issue at the heart of its struggles with power balance , the movie finds plenty lot of effortless humor in that conflict. The emotional tug of war at the heart of the film’s romantic conflict reminded me a lot of a poem deceased artist Bob Flanagan reads in the documentary Sick that starts, “Smart-Ass Masochists: Those are masochists who can take anything– can take anything they tell you to do. Anything I tell you to do I’ll do it just for you.” The power dynamics of a BDSM relationship are more complicated than they may first appear to an outsider and The Duke of Burgundy has a lot of fun playing that aspect for both humor and emotional resonance.

It’s incredible that The Duke of Burgundy never loses its balance. It’s an affecting story about true love, but it also sports piss jokes. It’s a movie that features kaleidoscopic cunnilingus, but it never approaches being salacious. It values strong, isolated images over plot & pacing, but never feels like a slog. It’s a well-made, satisfying film that simultaneously stimulates the intellect and entertains on a simple, surface-pleasures level. In short, it’s a fantastic, must-see film that will find you saying “Thank you so much. This is all I ever wanted,” even before one of the protagonists gets to say it first.

-Brandon Ledet

Björk: Biophilia Live (2014)

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“I do believe motion pictures are the significant art form of our time. And I think the main reason is, they’re an art form of movement, as opposed to static art forms of previous times. But another reason that they’re the preeminent art form is they’re part art and part business. They are a compromised art form, and we live in a somewhat compromised time. And I believe to be successful over the long run, unless you’re a Federico Fellini or an Ingmar Bergman or a true genius in filmmaking, you have to understand that you’re working in both an art and a business.” – Roger Corman

The concert movie is a disadvantaged art form, as it has a lot to prove out the gate to justify its place among other films. While documentaries & fictional films can pretend not to be what Roger Corman would call a “compromised” artistic commodity, the concert film is always conspicuously selling a product: the band or artist that’s performing. The blurred line between short film & advertisement is acceptable in a music video, because they’re generally free to access and easy to consume. A full-length concert film on the other hand, especially one with a theatrical release, has a much steeper hill to climb. It’s asking you to pay admittance to a long-form promotion, spectacle or not. This is an especially hard sell for someone that’s not already a dedicated fan of the product on display.

Although some concert films make no attempt to hide their commercial aspirations or reach an audience outside of their fan base (last year’s One Direction: Where We Are is a recent high-profile example), others bend over backwards to prove themselves worthy to be discussed among their less-scrutinized film peers. Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense proves itself a genre benchmark through its careful consideration of how the band’s literal stage presence affects its cinematic image.  Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars uses the silver screen to breathe life into the fictional character of the film’s title. The Band’s The Last Waltz uses some of that good old Scorsese grit to give the account of its “farewell concert” the feeling of an intimate late-night jam session shared between a few dozen (exceptionally talented) friends. I don’t mean to pick on the One Direction concert movie. The group has a wide enough fan-base that the demand for a no frills concert movie is loud enough on its own to justify Where We Are’s existence. I’m just trying to distinguish why Bjork’s Biophilia Live, a movie in the same distinctly commercial-minded genre, deserves to be considered among the best films of 2014.

Biophilia Live begins with the voice of famed naturalist David Attenborough making wild, unrealistic declarations over breathtaking nature footage befitting the TV series Planet Earth. Attenborough urges the audience to “forget the size of the human body. Remember that you are a gateway between the universal and the microscopic, the unseen forces that stir the depths of your innermost being and Nature, who embraces you and all there is.” He goes on to claim that “we are on the brink of a revolution that will reunite humans with nature through new technological innovation.” Holy shit. That’s quite an ambitious opener. The film itself nearly delivers on this majestic promise, finding a unique visual language that combines “nature, music, and technology” into one cohesive whole.

This union of “nature, music and technology” is accomplished through a layered visual collage that matches the on-stage aspects of the concert being filmed to the beautiful nature footage & pixelated CGI that swirls around and above it. During the opening song “Thunderbolt” Björk appears in the Earth’s stormy atmosphere, her backing band’s synths (and a specially rigged Tesla coil) seemingly controlling the lightning that illuminates the air around her. The imagery then shifts from the earthly to the celestial, the rhythm of the music correlating to the phases of the moon and the glacially shifting lights of stars and galaxies. The focus then shrinks from the heavenly to the microscopic: Fantastic Voyage-style close-ups of blood moving through veins fade to pixelated bacteria attaching to strands of DNA before the images finally devolve into distorted television color bars & computer monitor static. My favorite use of the nature footage arrives during this microcosmic section when crystals form over the image of Björk performing the song “Crystalline”, only to disappear in a blink to match the song’s violent rhythms. “Crystalline”‘s “internal nebula” & “crystalizing galaxies” lyrical phrasing also feels like the film’s tone in a nutshell. It’s in the stranger moments like this and like when vibrant mushrooms slowly expand in the foreground, leaving the stage antics out of focus that Biophilia Live shines brightest.

These phases of the imagery are cleverly allowed to bleed into one another instead of remaining isolated, which leads to some transcendent juxtaposition: a lightning storm in outer space, the moon perched on a spinal column, crystal formations melting into prism light. Even Björk herself looks like a combination of two ostensibly separate natural phenomenons, her gigantic wig like a colorful galaxy & her asymmetrical dress like an underwater growth. Attenborough’s opening monologue defines “biophilia” as “the love for Nature in all her manifestations” and Biophilia Live tries desperately to capture all of those manifestations in one definitive catalog. Conceived as a single facet of a multi-media project alongside a studio album, music-composition computer apps, and a filmed conversation between Björk & Attenborough, the film itself is more than just a document of a single concert. It’s also an attempt to tie years of far-reaching ideas spread across various art forms into a single product, the same way it tries to tie all of Nature into a single entity. What’s most impressive is that the film succeeds.

Although Björk exhibited creative control through all aspects of the production, part of the film’s success is surely due to the involvement of British director Peter Strickland. Strickland had already established his skills in visually displaying reverence for sound in his 2013 film Berberian Sound Studio, a bizarre thriller that’s just as much homage to foley artists & sound engineers as it is to old school giallo movies. There’s a lot of maddening, horrific energy in Berberian’s dissociative conflict between its imagery & its sounds. Here he & co-director Nick Fenton instead synchronize sounds to their visual equals in the style of Björk’s previous music video collaborations with Michel Gondry. The dissociation occurs instead in how the images relate to each other: how the screens interact with the stage, how distant stars relate to plankton, etc.  Through various camera movement & editing techniques Biophilia Live creates a world that’s simultaneously intimate and expansive.

The live concert format is occasionally at odds with the film’s intimacy. The crowd sometimes intrudes mid-song, breaking the reverie with premature applause. Björk is appreciative of their presence at least, punctuating the end of each song with a polite “thank you”. Of course, the film’s very existence depends on Björk’s relationship with her audience, the same way the existence of One Direction’s Where We Are depends on theirs. Without a basic appreciation for Björk’s music, it’s unlikely that that someone would enjoy a feature-length document of one of her concerts.

What makes Biophilia Live remarkable is the ambition to reach beyond pleasing fans musically. It also asks its audience to contemplate the totality of Nature and how its individual parts interact and unite into a cohesive whole. It’s a zealous, far-reaching work that deserves to be included in the conversation of the best films released in 2014 as well as the best concert films of all time.

-Brandon Ledet