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Phantom Thread
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by Peter Sobczynski

"The Master"
5 stars

Now that it has finally and mercifully come to an end, one can look back on 2017 and realize that while it may have been little more than an extended garbage fire in most respects, it was actually a pretty good year from a cinematic standpoint. However, if I was asked to name only one film from the last 12 months that I thought would go down as a true classic, the kind of movie that will continued to be viewed, studied and adored for as long as people continue to do such things, my instant answer would be “Phantom Thread,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s utterly unique and absolutely mesmerizing period drama. It has been roughly six weeks or so since I first saw it and I do not think that a single day has gone by since then when I haven’t found myself thinking about it and the mysteries contained within it. At once a throwback to a classical style of big screen storytelling and at the same time completely unclassifiable, this is the first film in recent memory that I would have no problem in referring to as a work of genius and it offers yet another confirmation—not that one is really needed at this point—that Anderson is not just one of the best and most audacious filmmakers of his time but one of the all-time greats to boot.

Set in 1955, “Phantom Thread” is centered on Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis), a couture fashion designer whose reputation is as impressive as his name. Working out of his vast London townhouse, Reynolds works day after day creating designs that are coveted by movie stars, royalty and other members of high society. In a series of establishing shots showing him going about his precise morning routine, from dressing and shaving to eating his breakfast, it becomes quickly apparent that he is a perfectionist of the highest order—the kind of person who is wired in such a way that even the slightest variation to the established routine inspires seismic shocks to his system that are simply unbearable to him. That is where Cyril (Lesley Manville), his sister and closest confidante, comes in. With her unerring sense of anticipating every one of Reynolds’s needs—perhaps even before he recognizes his need for them—she allows him to dedicate all of his concentration on his art by taking care of all the other messy details of life, from letting in the small army of seamstresses and assistants who arrive each morning to help him execute his visions to doing most of the hard work required when he grows tired of the latest woman he has briefly allowed into his life. (“I simply don’t have time for confrontations.”). There is no sense that doing any of this (or anything else, for that matter) gives Cyril much in the way of pleasure but if it needs to be done, then so it must.

One day, during a rare lull in his schedule, he drives off into the country for a brief respite and along the way stops at a run-of-the-mill seaside hotel for breakfast. His waitress is Alma (Vicky Krieps) and while she is somewhat shy and awkward, there is something about her—possibly her quiet beauty, possibly the offhand way that she responds to his low-key flirtation, or possibly the way that she takes down his truly heroic and insanely detailed breakfast order without bating an eye—that captures his attention. He asks her out on a date that begins with going out for dinner and then retiring to his place where, instead of getting her out of her clothes, he contrives to get her into his by fitting her into his latest creation while the ever-present Cyril stands by to take down her measurements. At one point during this, he offhandedly remarks “You have no breasts. My job is to give you some, if I choose to.” To you and I, this may not sound like especially romantic repartee but Alma is hooked and before long, she is installed in the House of Woodcock as Reynolds’s latest muse.

If Alma is expecting anything remotely resembling a traditional romance with Reynolds, she is quickly disabused of that notion. She is put in the bedroom next to his and is not only barred from his room but has to watch as Cyril enters without a moment’s hesitation. Things get even more tense at breakfast as Alma tries in vain to engage Reynolds in ordinary morning conversation while he sits there dumbfounded and wondering why anyone could possibly need to butter their toast that fucking loud! Cyril is pretty sure that the writing is on the wall with her but she and Reynolds have both wildly underestimated her resilience. Despite his aloofness, she genuinely loves him and elects to assert her position and make him love her back. As things transpire, the need to make him understand and recognize her adoration unlocks something in her that makes her into someone as formidable and unyielding as both Reynolds and Cyril. When it seems as if Reynolds is finally through with her once and for all, Alma finds herself going to truly unexpected lengths to make him see that she loves him and make him realize that he loves her after all.

Over the course of a career that has encompassed the likes of such instant classics as “Sydney,” “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia,” “Punch Drunk Love,” “There Will Be Blood,” “The Master” and “Inherent Vice,” Paul Thomas Anderson has given the moviegoers something wholly surprising and unanticipated and “Phantom Thread” is certainly on a par with its predecessors in that respect. When it was announced that he and Day-Lewis, who had previously collaborated on “There Will Be Blood,” would reunite on a project that had something to do with a Fifties-era British fashion designer, it sounded like a promising enough premise for a film (hell, a shot-for-shot remake of “Stroker Ace” would sound like a promising idea coming from those two) but I cannot imagine anyone thinking that the final result would be anything like this. On the surface, it appears to be one of his most traditional and straightforward efforts—it has the ostensible look and feel of the kind of film that would have been referred to once upon a time as being a “woman’s film” and the relationship and interactions between the three key characters suggests any number of movies, most notably Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of “Rebecca.” And yet, in much the same way that Reynolds can sew little messages into the linings of his creations that are not seen by those merely looking on the surface, a look beneath the luscious exterior of “Phantom Thread” reveals it to be a much darker and stranger tale than it seems at first glance and one fitting in perfectly with Anderson’s oeuvre as a whole.

At its center, “Phantom Thread” is essentially a story about white male privilege and the staggering amount of bad behavior that certain people can indulge in as long as they can back it up with wealth, power and/or prestige. This is a theme that Anderson has been exploring in most of his recent efforts and indeed, one could argue that this film completes a loose trilogy on the subject that also includes two of three previous films, “There Will Be Blood” and “The Master.” In those films, we saw demanding men imposing their will on people and people letting them get away with murder out of greed, fear or some kind of misguided sense that people with money and power are indeed better than most people and therefore deserve to be treated differently. Although the world of fashion may strike some as being inherently less important than, say, the oil industry, Reynolds Woodcock is no less formidable a figure in his world than Daniel Plainview was in his. Like the characters in those other films, Reynolds is obsessed with his work and all the trappings that he has received as a result of the perfection that he demands from himself and anyone who comes into his orbit. In “There Will Be Blood” and “The Master,” the main characters left no time in their lives for romance—Daniel Plainview had no wife or girlfriend to speak of and while Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) did have a wife (Amy Adams), their relationship seemed more like a business alliance than anything. The question Anderson is asking here is what would occur if a character with a similar temperament found themselves embroiled in a romance. On the flip side of the coin, what happens when someone who is clearly meant to serve as a muse to inspire a famous man to new levels of greatness decides that she wants more than that after all.

How Anderson develops these points in the story is a marvel to behold. From the way that he wields his tool to the manner in which he holds his newspaper, Reynolds is firmly established early on as a man of ultimate precision—someone who has found a perfect balance for his life that allows him to focus entirely on the work that that consumes him and who would probably be about as excited to alter it as he would be if someone were to alter one of his painstakingly crafted dresses. At first, Alma seems to be absolutely no match for him but we soon realize that the two have more in common than it might appear at first. She recognizes that he is not necessarily a cruel man but one who is trapped by his emotional limitations and is determined to help free him from himself so that she can get what she wants. So what if this threatens the very existence of the House of Woodcock? This leads to an number of brutal squabbles in which Reynolds treats her horribly but even as he is dressing her down for the sin of preparing the asparagus a different way, he seems to deep down have a certain admiration for her refusal to just put up with his shit, a feeling that pays off in the jaw-dropping finale. At the same time, Anderson has too much respect for his characters to allow them to end up sacrificing all of their individual quirks in the name of true love and the way in which he negotiates the union of two strong-willed individuals feels far more bracingly honest than most movie romances.

One of the unexpected pleasures of “Phantom Thread” is just how funny it is, an aspect that is not even hinted at in the oblique trailers and commercials. Granted, the humor is of a decidedly dark and cutting variety but it adds another welcome level to the proceedings. This mostly takes the form of Alma gradually revealing herself to be just as strong-willed in her own way as Reynolds. At one point in the proceedings, Reynolds is asked to create a dress for
a booze-happy and fairly vulgar woman of great means (Harriet Sansom Harris) for her marriage to a Latin playboy that is all but certain to end in failure. Reynolds has been inveigled to attend the ceremony—mostly so the bride can show him off as much as the dress he has made—and he in turn brings Alma along. During the ceremony, the bride gets liquored up and starts acting more obnoxious as usual in a manner that offends Alma to no end—how dare anyone act in such a manner while wearing a Woodcock original. The two of them then conspire to take back the dress right then and there in a manner that is both highly amusing (if perhaps a bit cruel) and inspires one of the few exchanges of outright passion between the two. This ends up flipping a switch in Alma and leads to a finale so bizarre and without precedent that you don’t know whether to laugh, shudder, applaud Anderson for having the audacity to even conceive of such a thing or all three. The proper answer, of course, is all three.

Much of the pre-release hype for “Phantom Thread” has centered around the announcement by Daniel Day-Lewis that this would mark his last screen performance. Whether this proves to be true or not (and I tend to take most “retirement” announcement of this sort with several grains of salt) but if this is it for him, then he has gone out on the highest possible note. Of course, the notion of Day-Lewis giving a great performance is hardly surprising—there is a reason why the guy has three Best Actor Oscars, after all. However, in many of those earlier performances, he has been able to deploy a wide array of little tricks and accoutrements, ranging from the stunning physical transformation he put himself through to play Christy Brown in “My Left Foot” to the booming John Huston-like vocal stylings he displayed in “There Will Be Blood” to the period outfits (and facial hair) he donned for any number of projects over the years. While Reynolds Woodcock is not quite a contemporary character, it does offer the sight of Day-Lewis acting without relying at all on props, costumes or vocal tics and his work is all the more mesmerizing for it. There is never a moment when we are not fully invested in the reality of this character and the world that he has created for himself—and pretty much only himself—to inhabit and even at his worst, he remains an absolutely fascinating figure throughout. The part may not be especially showy but I would rank it right up there with his turns as Daniel Plainview and his terribly underrated work in “The Age of Innocence” as one of the great performances in a career full of them.

Like I said, Daniel Day-Lewis giving a great performance is nothing new and the same goes for Lesley Manville, who is quietly terrifying and oddly sympathetic as Cyril—these are actors known for their brilliance and we expect nothing less than that from them. The real surprise, however, is the equally extraordinary performance given by Vicky Krieps, a relatively unknown actress from Luxembourg who deserves to be a big star based on her work here. Not only is this the biggest film role that she has ever had to date most of her scene find here going one-on-one with one of the most highly regarded actors in the world. That is the kind of thing that might prove to be intimidating to most actresses, even veteran ones, but Krieps, not unlike the character she plays, proves to be his equal and then some in the way that she holds her own against him. In her early scenes, she is so sweet-natured that it is impossible not to instantly fall in love with her but as the story proceeds and she begins to reveal heretofore unsuspected levels of strength and resolve, she becomes even more compelling and captivating as we realize that we truly have no idea of what she and her character are truly capable of doing. Again, I come back to the wild finale of the film. In lesser hands, it might have come off as little more than a weirdo joke but she sells it completely to the point where it not only seems like a great ending, it feels like the only way it can possibly end.

“Phantom Thread” is such an embarrassment of riches—I haven’t even touched upon such key elements as the gorgeous cinematography by Anderson himself (if you are lucky enough to live within a reasonable distance of one of the seven theaters in the U.S. showing it in 70MM, you should make a point to experience it in that format), Jonny Greenwood’s hauntingly beautiful score and, of course, the stunning costumes designed by Mark Bridges—that it may require more than one viewing to fully grasp just how good it is. Considering just how engrossing it turns out to be, that is hardly a chore by any means, though people who prefer to have their dramas underlined a little more boldly may grow a bit impatient with its largely reserved approach to the material. Nevertheless, “Phantom Thread” is a great, great film and one of the most genuinely romantic dramas I have seen in a long time.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=31333&reviewer=389
originally posted: 01/12/18 13:32:17
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User Comments

2/26/20 dc just so booooooooring 1 stars
2/05/20 Ari Good film 3 stars
2/09/18 subhadeep dutta grand filmmaking utterly transporting piece of cinema 5 stars
1/07/18 Bob Dog Pretentious drivel that wishes it were melodrama. 2 stars
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  25-Dec-2017 (R)
  DVD: 10-Apr-2018


  DVD: 10-Apr-2018

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