Sunday 21 January 2018

Phantom Thread by Paul Thomas Anderson - Review

Set in London around a decade after WW2, Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread is loosely about the fashion world, but it's draped in a gothic graveyard that whistles in the distance, beckoning the characters to come closer. It's less an homage to the films of Hitchcock (particularly Rebecca with a dash of Vertigo) and more a perfect re-creation of your favorite TCM movies stirred up in a cauldron of black magic. 10 years after the monumental There Will Be Blood (arguably the century's greatest film), Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis reteam for this film that fittingly is unidentifiable in its tone, or what it's even truly about.

Don't let that deter you though; its mysterious peripherals and mixing of tones is where its strange power comes from (the film didn't emotionally hit me until hours after). Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, an obsessive dressmaker who sews and creates dresses for London's wealthiest. He sits in his moonlit gothic tower of a house like an Ebenezer Scrooge figure. His sister, Cyril (the legendary Lesley Manville), runs the business affairs. Day-Lewis plays him more subdued than you'd expect, and with only his eyes we can see he craves something that's missing—just out of reach. This is Anderson's most straightforward film since Magnolia, although its idiosyncrasies and old school style make it a film more fit for cinephiles than general audiences. It plays like a three-headed beast of a character study with Manville’s Cyril caught in between Day Lewis’ Reynolds and newcomer Vicky Krieps’s Alma, who steals the show as Reynolds' muse and lover.

As with Anderson's previous three films, Phantom Thread is intimidatingly austere in its formalism, and is pitch perfectly acted, but it's disarmingly silly with its giggle inducing dialogue exchanges. When Krieps' Alma enters the picture, Reynolds' world lights up like it's Christmas morning. Anderson spoke of Inherent Vice saying that he saw Doc Sportello and Bigfoot as having a sort of Tom and Jerry relationship (There Will Be Blood and The Master could be described this way as well). Phantom Thread has an equally comic tone (please allow and forgive me for following the cartoon connection) that has a Dexter's Laboratory type of relationship where a curious girl enters a megalomaniac's workspace and disrupts everything in hilarious, almost slapstick fashion. Alma wanders around the house like Dee Dee and continuously ruins Reynolds' routine, yet he seems amused by her dominance. In one scene he and Alma grow angered that an unworthy drunken bride is wearing one of Reynolds’ dresses, so Reynolds hilariously sends Alma to go retrieve it as if she's a Bond villain's henchwoman.

The humor is remarkably fresh in that it's created through old schools methods; like the way that Alma makes a sly comment to Reynolds when he's trying to concentrate, or the way she loudly butters her toast at breakfast, or the way Cyril gives death stares. The dialogue feels almost improvisational; full of stutters and rambles, mumbles and screams. While slowly paced, it excitingly evolves itself in strange directions with no clear sign of where this is heading—and when I saw where it does end up, I wished that it had gone even further!

Anderson's camera rarely swoons over the beautiful dresses and gothic house. It instead patiently examines them in different angles and spaces. The film is geometrically precise in its aesthetic beauty and focus on these characters and their complex, sub-textual relationships. It’s a cold, objective approach, but by the end—if you've given your full attention—the effect is one that has forced you to analyze the superficial, to look less at the beauty and surface appearances and instead at the threads beneath and how they intertwine emotionally and spiritually. Reynolds and Alma's relationship slowly unspools and eventually reveals its twistedly romantic beating heart.

Reynolds’ soul has a haunted ache that he cannot heal. He speaks of the dead, curses, and superstitions throughout the film. Candle lit rooms, moon soaked hallways, and a motif of doors opening makes the house feel like a portal to the beyond. Reynolds' relationship with his deceased mother feels Oedipal; at times it feels like we're watching him through her POV. This spectral interest makes Alma's entrance into Reynolds life—and the way that she keeps the relationship alive—feel like the work of witchcraft. It's as if ghostly forces are just beyond the frame, guiding these tortured lovebirds.

Food is as beautifully presented here as the dresses that Woodcock designs. A motif of appetite and recurring images of food symbolize the unrelenting need to consume love or art, over and over, and how eventually you get full of it, and must wait to become hungry again. In a film about an obsessive artist it's not hard to see how Anderson and Day-Lewis, who loosely co-wrote the script together, have made a film about themselves. Whether intentional or not, this is Anderson's eighth film, and might be viewed as his own 8 ½—Fellini's film about himself struggling to figure out what his next film will be. As for Day-Lewis, I have a hard time believing this is it for him, but Reynolds Woodcock is his most personal performance and character.

The film's constantly moving center finally reveals itself through a deliciously kinky decision by Alma. The finale is both sinister and heartwarming—playing almost like an eternal, romantic curse. For a film that finds its power in the opaque mysteries of love and death, I found its metaphor too obvious, but the act itself is pleasingly menacing in a Hitchcockian way, and somehow feels universal.

Phantom Thread is about the ways in which in we long for someone to love us, just as we love them, and the strange lengths people will go to continue that love. Paul Thomas Anderson has crafted, and I really mean crafted, a gorgeously haunting film of artists, their struggle to create, and most of all, the person who gives them everything to let them do so. That it ranks quite low on my personal PTA list isn't indicative of this film not being great (upon reflection it is), but rather how Anderson has created such titanic standards for himself.

Every once in a while a ghostly thread might appear, but before you can reach out to touch it, it's gone. In the mold of a gothic romance, Paul Thomas Anderson has found the perfect story to fully express his career interest in the spiritual, and how such forces might materialize in front of us. There are answers to mysteries within Phantom Thread, but they're so close to you that can't see them.

Review by Andy Zachariason

Phantom Thread. USA 2017. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring Vicky Krieps, Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville...

Out on general release in the USA, and on the 2nd of February in the UK

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