PHANTOM THREAD B+
USA (130 mi) 2017 d: Paul Thomas Anderson
Arguably the most Kubrickian film in the post-Kubrick era, though it appears emotionally inert and not nearly as interesting, lacking some of that obsessional Kubrickian devotion to detail (for which there is no equal or comparison, as his curiosity knew no bounds), though it is exacting enough in its elegant precision, where this will have to do, with an impressive visual form showing surprising restraint, especially when seen in glorious 70mm, making this among the more exquisite cinema experiences possible in the modern era. Given such an exceptional look throughout, balanced with an equally alluring French classical musical score, moving from Debussy, Fauré, and Berlioz, as well as Schubert and Brahms, along with a classical score by Jonny Greenwood, this is all largely a tone poem, a chamber piece getting inside the internal minds of a high couture house of fashion, as we observe them go through their regular workday routines, led by fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock, Daniel Day-Lewis, a pretentiously obsessive and overly controlling man in East London in the early 50’s who maintains his childhood temperament, where everything has to be exactly as he wants it throughout his daily ordeal, as anything out of place will only detract from his creative impulses, something that bothers him to no end, letting the offending party hear about it with regularly occurring temper tantrums, all part of a normal day’s work in the House of Woodcock. Equally austere is his beloved sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), affectionately referred to as “my old so-and-so,” a stone cold ice princess who ruthlessly observes every last detail and manages the financial concerns of the company, always protecting the emotional inner world of her brother, without which they could not possibly hope to stay in business, so his every need is catered to like a symphonic orchestra all in unison, making sure no one ever plays an incorrect note. All of this is an exploration of British custom and manner, dressing members of the royal family, film stars, heiresses, socialites, and debutantes, the potential buyers of this overly personalized, expensive merchandise, as everyone and everything has a proper place in the working apparatus of British society, where royalty and nobility routinely ignore the concerns of ordinary citizens, as they’re too busy preening in the latest fashion designs coming out of these houses, finding the right festive or somber occasion to exhibit this costumed finery, as they’re only allowed to wear it around other equally pompous nobility, where putting wealth on display is what they do for a living. The customs and manners of the wealthy aristocracy haven’t been examined like this since Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2001), an absolutely gorgeous film that relished in the pretentious fun of the upper classes, as it was explored through the eyes of the servants who were serving these prima donnas, so, much to the director’s own delight, one assumes, it was told with tongue in cheek. Not so here, as it’s a much more intricate affair, exploring the world through the eyes of a full-fledged fashion god and his much younger mistress, exclusive fashion model, and ultimately his wife, Alma (Vicky Krieps, a relatively undiscovered actress from Luxembourg), a mere commoner whose worldly pleasures have little in common with the master of the house.
A film of rhythm and routine, where the women of the seamstress brigade arrive early, gathered outside the door, greeted personally by Cyril or Woodcock himself as they climb up the narrow staircase on their way up to their workroom and immediately find their work stations, putting on white coats, busily hand-stitching each magnificent dress, (where in a film like this one must recognize the costume designer, Mark Bridges). While there is order and quiet in their daily regimen, it is clear these women are overworked, and used to it, constantly working after hours on special orders that must meet unheard of deadlines, with no complaining or even an ounce of displeasure uttered, though late in the film we do discover one of the seamstresses has taken her talents to another couture house, much to the chagrin of Woodcock, who takes it as a personal affront to his character, moaning about how unfair everything is, which his sister endures briefly before telling him to buck up, as these things happen, unfortunately, and there’s really nothing they can do about it, so get over it and move on. Her practical viewpoint is the backbone of the organization, as Woodcock himself is all aflutter, a moody iconoclast who distrusts all, including himself, giving it all to his profession, leading a monastic life where he rarely sleeps, rising each day searching for more fashion inspirations, spending most of his time drawing his latest ideas. Hating interruptions, the man is the picture of the walking wounded if even so much as a sound is ever heard out of place, as his all-important mood depends upon complete obedience to his everchanging temperament. While Day-Lewis seems to specialize in domineering characters who are used to having things their way, bullying those around them to get their way, this is reportedly his last role, claiming he will be retiring from acting, though making himself scarce will only increase the price of offers to come out of retirement, most likely a shrewd business decision. Because of all the accumulated aggravation that comes with the pressure of his chosen profession, Woodcock has been dreaming lately about his beloved mother, who taught him the trade, believing she is hovering over him, keeping watch, so his sister suggests a trip to the country would do him good, suggesting he get a head start and she’ll join him the next day. This sets the stage for the all-important meeting between Woodcock and the shy, introverted waitress that serves him, a bit clumsy, but devoted to his every need. Almost instantly, he asks if she’ll have dinner with him, introducing her to the opulence of his world, retreating to his work quarters afterwards where on their first date he dresses her, designing a gown for her right there on the spot, taking her overall measurements (there are more than a dozen) while Cyril jots them down in an oddly overstuffed personalized catalogue, freely intruding into her personal interior space, as if stripping her naked and commenting upon her physique, though after expressing some displeasure about her own unconventional form, thinking it doesn’t fit together well, Cyril reassures her she has the perfect physique for her brother, as “He likes a little belly.”
The film has doses of humor throughout, but most can be attributed to the absurdity of Woodcock’s demeanor, an overly fussy perfectionist who is easily thrown off his game, where the sounds Alma makes having breakfast in the morning become a prominent theme of the film, as it grates on his nerves, such as buttering her toast, or stirring her coffee, stomping off in a huff, with Cyril calmly acknowledging “If breakfast isn’t right, it’s very hard for him to recover for the rest of the day.” The underlying dynamic of their relationship, however, is rock solid, building upon a trust factor established as his leading model, as she’s completely devoted to him, just like everyone else that surrounds him, where all obey his every wish, never once stepping out of line. His demanding nature, however, gets the better of him, as even he needs to slow down a bit to keep from overburdening himself with all his petty grievances, which he only addresses through inappropriate tantrums, his way of letting off steam, which seem to balance the equilibrium and get him back into working order. These mood swings are quite extreme, with Alma taking note, assuming an air of quiet rebellion, becoming something we never expected, discovering her own home grown solution for providing the needed balance, as only when he’s completely exhausted and off his feet does he turn tender and appreciative of her care, lavishing him with love and affection. So Alma, so quiet and reticent most of the time, meek as a mouse, learns how to push the buttons, dangerously so, pushing him to near exhaustion, resembling the tactics of extreme sadomasochists who strangle their lovers just prior to sexual release, increasing their pleasure by dangerously toying with levels of pain. This allure of toxicity is a dangerous game, yet it’s the only way to restore any equilibrium to his ill-mannered, overly dominant behavior, balancing his outlandishness with a restorative remedy, where only she has the power to bring him down to size, carefully watching over him in the process. It’s an odd set of circumstances to be sure, but if anything can be known about the personal eccentricities of the wealthy it’s that many lead dysfunctional personal lives, at least according to Truman Capote, a socialite writer who partied with the rich and famous and wrote about it, both in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and his posthumously published Answered Prayers: The Unfinished Novel, suggesting personal habits that are astonishingly weird, exaggerated beyond extreme, which is why they go to such extremes to keep them private and out of the public domain. This film only feigns at what’s really going on under the surface, remaining largely a superficial glimpse of an obscure world, like Cyril the first time she discovers the presence of Alma in the house, “And who is this lovely creature making the house smell so nice?,” moving uncomfortably closer and actually soaking in her smell, describing the aromas with inscrutable detail. While Woodcock is a puffed peacock of male arrogance and pride, Alma knows the pressure points to bring him down to size, relishing that time together, both drawn to one another like an intoxicating allure, yet those morning breakfasts still have a way of grating on Woodcock’s every last nerve, but he stomachs it, relinquishing a smidgen of control, knowing she is utterly devoted to him, a trustworthy partner, an equal in love, and a lifelong companion who will continually watch over him like the dead spirit of his mother, only Alma will be there to greet him every day, serving his every wish. Probably Anderson’s most accomplished film since There Will Be Blood (2007), though still missing the fresh potency of his earlier films, in the end, with a lavish Max Ophüls style set design and swooning moods out of Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940, whose wife was named Alma, by the way), this is just another old-fashioned love story.
Shooting on the film ended the same day as the death of Jonathan Demme, a fellow film director, close friend and mentor who died from cancer. The film is dedicated to Demme.