Directed by Peter Strickland
This was my last film at LFF this year, but I’m writing about it first because it was by a long way the most enjoyable and memorable thing I saw there. An Eastern European wash of delicious darkness lies over what is in many ways a thoroughly English black comedy set in a version of Reading (Strickland’s birthplace), called Thames Valley on Thames. It centres on a beautiful red dress that is deadly to whoever wears it, for sale in a department store seemingly existing in the 70s and beyond when such places were special, of the kind where models parade around wearing ‘modes’ and the shop assistants are more stylish and intimidating than the customers. Into this hot house comes Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), our representative of normality, single mother of a stroppy teenage son, who’s tentatively putting herself out there on the dating scene. Will someone please put together a ‘department store’ film weekend, because this plus Carol plus Brooklyn alone would make a delicious feast of that very odd transaction that is the power balance between assistant and customer.
Like a cruel parody of Anderson’s pale-clad, diligent seamstresses arriving for work up the stairs each morning in Phantom Thread, Dentley & Soper’s shop assistants line up in grand guignol black silk nipped-waist dresses to take their places behind the counters. Foremost among them, and saleswoman of the fatal dress, is Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohammed), who rules her customers with a piercing gaze, almost impenetrable Eastern European accent, and a weirdly baroque and multi-syllable, abstract-noun-heavy language (‘Dimensions and proportions transcend the prisms of our measurements’). But the most frightening thing about her to us is what happens when the shop closes, and after some dodgy business with the plastic dress models, she takes off her heavy wig and a kind of fear or pain enters her expression as she transforms into something akin to the bald little manikin of Street of Crocodiles, moving jerkily and folding herself up into a kind of dumb waiter to descend to dusty corners of the basement, far from the glossy sleekness of the public floors. This is to my mind the most chilling section of the film.
Many have pointed out the clear homages to Italian gothic, and in particular Argento, with its sumptuous use of colour and texture and overwrought menace, but it’s actually the multifariousness of the nods and winks to other forms that raise this film to its idiosyncratic magnificence. Allusions pop and fizz in your mind – and in contrast to the chills of the Quay Brothers, the gloss of Carol, the po-faced self-obsession of Phantom Thread, Steve Oram and Julian Barratt channel The Office-type cock-eyed bureaucracy as Sheila’s managers at the bank where she works. And the wonderful Leo Bill, a Loach and Leigh regular, is the Monty Python Bicycle Repairman de nos jours.
And with him comes another, unexpected, joy of the film – fact that it continues beyond where you think the narrrative’s going, by dismissing its first protagonist, à la Psycho, an wed moving on with a second go at the powers of the dress. Having been consigned to a charity shop, it’s picked up by hapless Reg (Bill) to wear at his stag party. He’s a washing machine repairman, and can bore for England talking about his work. (The bank managers use him as a kind of soporific to relax by when he goes to ask for a loan). Will the dress get him, or his down-to-earth wife-to-be (Hayley Squires)? Go and see, and bask in the very odd, wild pleasures of this exhilarating piece of British film-making.
Seen 19 October, London Film Festival