REVIEW: PHANTOM THREAD. Cinematic Slow Food Delight
In lieu of the Oscars, I decided to go ahead and post this blog entry I wrote a while back. Immediately after watching Phantom Thread, I sat down and wrote this...
I’ve been an admirer of Paul Thomas Anderson since I saw Boogie Nights and then – a bit late to the game - I discovered his debut Hard Eight buried deep in a Blockbusters VHS discount bin in the late 90s. Back then, where there was no YouTube, podcasts and other diarrhetic-information outlets. Magazines, Sundance Film Festival Interviews and radio talks revealed a frenetic, prolific, but also down-to-earth sympatico I could identify with as a young aspiring filmmaker. PTA always embodied the ultimate, artsy indie-director with a strong visionary style, always reaching. Of course he’s proven a true Evergreen among the rising 90s indie directors of times past.
“The Master” has become my yearly mandatory canonical viewing. At least twice a year I end up watching the film and discover new details, depths and insights with every screening. Each time a painful chasm opens itself anew, mirroring my own anxieties over my personal religious commitments and the many dark holes I must navigate through to make it all work inside my limited brain. Cognitive gymnastics aside, the paradox of characters, the dual passions that tug and pull each protagonist in opposing directions speaks of the human struggle: to hold on to youthful passions of the past or abandon it all for the pursuit of a dream, often leaving a wake of destruction behind. Strong but always flawed men, obsessed and willing to sacrifice everything to reach the summit…the incurable illness of those haunted by dreams and visions of grandeur. Whether prophet, oil prospector or fashion designer, the self-absorbed masochists and ego-driven megalomaniacs, all of them are slowly distilled to their dark essence. We revel in their gloom, their pain and failures maybe with a pinch of empathy, but mostly a fair amount of disgust. A cautionary tale so inviting that we always have to watch to the end. What’s behind it all is revealed to a degree, but more questions seem to surface than answers.
With Anderson’s eighth and latest film, Phantom Thread, the story may snail along in the pace of Remains of the Day, but it titillates with undeniable tension and suspense. Even if boredom or lack of movement ruffles your impatient Magnolia feathers, wanting a storm of frogs to come crashing down to an Amiee Mann track, curiosity will get the best of you due to Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps incredible performances, always leaving you wondering and wanting more. Paul Thomas Anderson, now more seasoned, grounded and patient it seems, hones in on every minute detail, creating micro movements within a scene and enough room for each character, a delightful sense of freedom close to an improvised stage play. As a middle-aged cineast I found this refreshing and its elongated pace reminded me of indie films of celluloid past, in the narrative vein of John Sayles or Hal Hartley.
Now to the details. Impressions and Thoughts. Spoilers here. Be warned.
The scene where Alma enters the world of Reynolds after a smile-ridden soiree by the fireplace still has me awestruck. Alma climbs higher, into the cerebral attic of Reynolds' old English countryside house, aglow with infatuation for the suave prince who swept her off her feet, liberated from her job as a small town waitress. Her palpable expectations grow with each upward climb. But instead of a cozy bedroom, Alma falls victim to Reynolds’ passion and obsession for his craft, and is abruptly removed from their flirtatious interaction. Allegorically, the attic is of course the brain and very essence of Reynolds, a sparse yet functional space for one thing and one thing only: a creative sanctuary for fashion. In an instant, conversations and smiles dissipate, and with haunting precision, Day-Lewis’ character is lost in microscopic looks, precise measuring, laconic responses with little to no eye contact and probably one of the most character revealing lines of dialogue, so underplayed, almost whispered. Reynolds critiques Alma’s physique as she awkwardly models the outline of a new gown. “You have no breasts,” he mutters under breath. Alma apologizes. “No, no,” he responds quickly. “You’re perfect. It’s my job to give you some. If I choose to...” Even before these lines echo at the end of the scene, in a bizarre out-of-nowhere entrance, Reynolds’ sister Cyril appears, played by the wonderful Lesley Manville. There is no effort to explain the interruption, why or how Cyril suddenly glides through the attic. She takes her place in a chair by the window and jots down sizes as Reynolds mumbles them out slowly, pins held by his pursed lips obstructing clear speech. Alma’s insecurities mount with each glare from this women she knows nothing about...Both Cyril and Reynolds, brother and sister, let the unknown simmer. No courteous gesture or explanation is given to offset Alma's clear discomfort by the stranger’s presence. The cold, matter-of-factness of Cyril and Reynolds is of course the usual modus operandi of the Woodcock duo, and their playground. It’s the place where dignities, celebrities and the rich and famous are reduced, stripped down to their bare physique as the Master sweeps over every hill and valley of their human frame. This scene encapsulates the confines and framework Alma must navigate through to enter into a relationship with Reynolds, a foreshadowing of the many challenges ahead.
As the relationship evolves, a play of power between Alma and Reynolds ensues. Reynolds clearly controls his surroundings with outlandish idiosyncrasies and rituals that are meant to contain, foster and heighten his creativity. Brooding, with clenched jaw and erratic facial ticks, Reynolds recoils with every bite Alma makes while eating her crunchy morning toast. His demand for ridiculous levels of complience to his every need serves as a ticking time bomb throughout the film and spells disaster for any relationship eager to thrive. But this union is different. Alma is different. She is his muse, and although there have been many women in the past (...it is set up early on that these female figures are quickly dismissed by Cyril who will pay them off with a dress and an invitation to take a leave of absence at the countryside house...), Reynolds can’t seem to cut Alma out of his life. Over time, both Cyril and him (essentially alter-egos of themselves) grow so fond of Alma that she ultimately claims her special spot in The House of Woodcock, eventually even being wed to the eternal bachelor incarnate.
Besides the expected and incredible acting of Daniel-Day Lewis, it is Vicky Krieps who delivers an equal brilliant performance, splashing color onto the canvas of each scene with her held-back smiles or confident gazes. If there is a thing called 'youthful restraint,' Vicky wields it carefully, and we are drawn in from the very first frame: the moment she stumbles in as a waitress. With her undeniable sparkle and glow, our misread of her as a young naive girl quickly shifts to an understanding that Alma walks through life with undaunted purpose and wisdom. This awareness makes her less of a victim and more of a volunteer. She knows that something will be ‘done’ to her and with emphasis bids Reynolds early on, “what ever you do…do it carefully.” It is also the fuel that gives Alma the ability to make big decisions in her relationship later on.
With the passage of time, roles cement as Reynolds' and Alma’s marriage takes the usual turn towards relationship fatigue. Add to that Reynolds’ growing existential dread, his wrestle with mortality, legacy and personal value and the stage is set for ACT III. Life demands agility, openness and the spontaneity to go dancing on New Years Eve, but Reynolds’ can barely flee his own rigidity. Alma’s final attempt to reach Reynolds is not by distancing herself, but by an alienating ploy to poison her husband. Oddly, what is done with trepidation and ignorance in outcome, ends up working. Like a young boy, Woodcock is deflated, suddenly stripped of all authority as his iron fist shrivels under severe illness into a weak hand begging for relief. Alma gladly assumes the role, relishes his tenderness and humanity: attributes she always knew were lurking just beneath his hard shell. Cyril must take a back seat and let Alma nurse Reynolds back to health. Her estate and claim on her brother shifts into a more normal realm and the conclusion seems that Alma has restored a balance to an emotionally abusive relationship.
Developing the characters further, PTA and Daniel Day-Lewis (the two apparently wrote the film together in collaboration) don’t rest there. In one of the final scenes, Reynolds has reverted to his crusty, difficult and demanding self and Alma repeats the formula of forcing her husband into illness. This time in broad daylight, cooking in front of him, her culinary skills subtly cloaking the insertion of poisonous mushrooms. And now it seems Reynolds is attune to her plan. He relishes every bite with a belligerent smirk, knowing that it may his last, and the only remedy left to soften his stubborn heart. His confident chewing is submission to mortality, submission to Alma and submission to the frailty of life. Since I’ve thrown in so many spoilers so far, I will refrain from hinting at the ending.
As with most masterpieces, all elements of filmmaking are working at the highest level here. Cinematography, design, costumes and makeup, art direction and the brilliant music of Johnny Greenwood. Atmosphere, mood and balance, musical properness as a mirror to British restraint while beneath thanatic restlessness rages, about to come unhinged.
Is the film pretentious? Is it 'fake deep' as I have seen some peers, bloggers and others respond.
No. A resounding no.
It is art. It is literature. It is poetry.
I am eager to watch this film again, to notice more details and relish this cinematic slow food with delight.