Friday, June 04, 2021

Phantom Thread (2017)

USA / UK, 130 minutes
Director/writer/photography: Paul Thomas Anderson
Music: Jonny Greenwood
Editor: Dylan Tichenor
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville

Phantom Thread is a Paul Thomas Anderson movie about a very fine dressmaker and fashion designer, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), who is living, working, and fussing in postwar midcentury London with his sister and manager, Cyril (Lesley Manville). It's a quiet, elegant picture, and boomers particularly are likely to find ecstasies of nostalgia in the period work, though much of it is interiors and costumes, with some cars, servants, and the usual exquisite manners. I took it in 2017, and in many ways still, as artifact of the same Anglophile impulse that has made people big fans of Downton Abbey, The Crown, and other such productions adoring of all things British. I admit I didn't give Phantom Thread much of a chance.

On a second look, it seems more remarkably eccentric, with a strangely perverse love story, a bit like Punch-Drunk Love. The rowdy Adam Sandler has been replaced by the suave consummate Laurence Olivier of our very own era. I'm not sure that works either but it's more interesting than I originally gave the movie credit for. Emily Watson and Vicky Krieps play similarly robotic, vaguely alien yet lovely creatures, which probably tells us more about PTA than about either story. I'm taking the title of Phantom Thread to mean the tenuous connections between people more than anything about sewing and needles, and I'm starting to think Anderson is more like a novelist taking it directly to film.

He has previously adapted a novel by Thomas Pynchon (Inherent Vice) and one by Upton Sinclair (Oil!) but otherwise he has written all the features he has directed. Phantom Thread has the strange turns of a novel growing out of its peculiar characters. Reynolds Woodcock in many ways could have stepped out of an Anne Tyler novel, another repressed but gifted genius of tiny things, welded to his routines. But the novel Phantom Thread most resembles to me is W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage, in which an upper-class guy falls in love with and is subsequently owned by a waitress, who merely scorns him even as she lets him take her out and give her gifts.

In Phantom Thread, Alma (Vicky Krieps) is a waitress with a memorably signature style of pouring drinks, but she does not really scorn Reynolds, a serial monogamist. He falls in love with her at first sight, the way serial monogamists do, when he is ordering breakfast from her. For Reynolds, Alma has the gift of glowing bright red when she blushes. He loves her vulnerability—and she loves his. Her more immediate and formidable opponent is Cyril and, more generally, Reynolds's work. He has a history of such women and relationships in his life and Cyril not only knows it but she is often the one responsible for getting rid of them when the time comes.

Alma does not scorn Reynolds but she stands up to him, sometimes willfully. In spite of her humble origins and his high status she expects to be respected and loved. Just at the point when Reynolds is getting ready to let her go, Alma poisons him with mushrooms she finds in the woods. She has been studying these mushrooms. She does not poison him enough to kill him, only enough to sicken him and put him in bed for a few days, where she can nurse him like a fierce mother bear and he is most grateful for her. She likes him best when he is tender and open. That turns into the essential dynamic in the relationship, revealed in the final scenes as conscious, deliberate, and knowing between them in all its perversity. Eventually they marry, presumably to live happily ever after.

It reminds us again that the lasting attachments between partners in couples are strange and mysterious things. Every couple seems to work out their own accommodations in their own ways, and every couple probably has some slightly horrifying things to tell about the things going on between them. It's a bit odd to find this idea inserted into a picture that seems otherwise so straight-laced and proper posture, often with the feel of a boarding-school story. Woodcock can be absolutely suffocating in his rigid, infantile psychological requirements. At one point, before he is brought to heel by her, he accuses Alma of buttering her toast too loudly. These breakfast scenes where Alma is too loud are priceless. Every scrape of knife on toast is heard.

Phantom Thread is odd and notable in other ways. Director and writer Anderson is also the chief cinematographer, uncredited. It's the last picture Daniel Day-Lewis made before retiring. And the aggregated opinion of critics, according to the roundup over at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, puts Phantom Thread currently among the top 50 movies made in this century—#45, to be exact. That one surprised me, mostly because it had made so little impression on me when I first saw it. I still think it's a bit high, and PTA in general is a little more in vogue than he may remain across the years, but OK. Phantom Thread is worth looking at again.

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