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Phantom Thread
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by alejandroariera

"The Unbearable Lightness of Perfection"
5 stars

"Phantom Thread," Paul Thomas Anderson’s eighth film and second collaboration with Daniel Day-Lewis, is, as the saying goes, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. It doesn’t give its secrets away upon a first viewing and it still proves elusive after a second viewing. It is mesmerizing and confounding, as elaborately and delicately crafted as the dresses designed by its protagonist Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis). It refuses to be pinned down. You are never quite sure where the story is headed. By the end of the film, you leave the theater feeling elated, with the knowledge that what you have just seen is so unique, so unlike anything you’ve ever seen that you have no choice but to revisit it again and again.

"Phantom Thread" is Anderson’s first film set outside the United States and it is also his least expansive: a 1950s British chamber drama that mostly takes place indoors. Reynolds is a creature of habit: in the film’s opening sequence, Anderson cuts from Reynolds preparing for the day —meticulously combing his hair, putting on his socks, etc.— with the arrival of his employees to his five-story house and workshop which he shares with his sister, Cyril (played by Leslie Manville) whom Reynolds tenderly calls “my so-and-so.” It’s a sequence choreographed, shot and edited with clocklike precision, Jonny Greenwood’s piano and cello motif giving it a fairy-tale like feel. Routine is so important to Reynold’s creativity that he berates his current muse when she interrupts his breakfast, and his sketching, with her complaints. “I cannot begin my day with a confrontation,” he admonishes her. She is promptly shown the door by Cyril, new dress in hand. Breakfasts are so important for the always fussy fashion designer that he finds his new muse while ordering a very hearty breakfast at a countryside restaurant: waitress Alma (Luxembourgian actress Vicky Krieps).

Their initial courtship is playful, almost childlike: it starts with an invitation to dinner that evening and ends with him dictating Alma’s measurements to Cyril and designing a dress for her. He takes Alma to their London house where she becomes as much of a fixture as his employees. She is spellbound by this world; he, on the other hand, sees her as another body he can use as a test subject for his designs, one that has neither voice nor vote in how he and his sister runs thing. Alma soon proves to be a disruptive figure in this carefully controlled environment. She loudly scratches butter on her toast and pours tea on her cup, perturbing Reynolds’ need for silence during breakfast. She talks back to him and even encourages him to reclaim a dress he designed from a drunken dowager at her wedding party. She locks horns with Cyril for control of this man and even though in demeanor she looks like "Rebecca"’s Mrs. Danvers, Cyril is far more level-headed and calculating: she knows when to step back and give Alma enough rope to hang herself.

Death hangs over these proceedings even though no one actually dies (although the less said as to why Reynolds falls ill not once but three times towards the film’s second half, the better). “It’s comforting to think that the dead are watching over the living,” Reynolds says early in the film, referring to his mother who taught him everything he knows about dressmaking. That same mother appears to him, in her wedding gown, during one of his feverish hallucinations. And, later, as he ponders what to do with Alma, he mutters “There’s an air of quiet death in this house.” This obsession with death seems to underline the film’s more Gothic and romantic elements; but while other directors would overstate its presence, Anderson underplays it. Death is just one of the many threads that are sewn together into a cohesive, beautiful whole. Then there’s this: “A house that doesn’t change is a dead house,” Cyril chastises Reynolds after he complains about a faithful client opting to go to another designer. Reynolds lives in such a bubble, in such a tightly controlled space, that he refuses to let into his house the changes that are beginning to shake the fashion world. The absence of sewing machines, the focus on hands sewing became more evident on a second viewing. This is a man who sees each and every one of his designs as a work of art, one that needs to be handcrafted with care and love, one that demands perfection. A craft that is on its final days, soon to be replaced by the far more colorful designs of Swinging London.

After playing larger than life characters in his last three films, it is great to see Daniel Day-Lewis take on a role that depends as much on silence as on dialogue. Reynolds brings him back home in more ways than one: it’s not only his first British film in more than two decades but also it also allows him to tap into the registers he brought to his performance of Cecil in "A Room with a View" (1985) and Newland Archer in Martin Scorsese’s magisterial adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel "The Age of Innocence" (1993). He portrays Reynolds as a temperamental, almost bipolar creature: one moment he can be the gentlest, most refined soul and the next a profanity-spewing child. His outbursts are shocking given the amount of time we see him quietly creating, sewing and measuring or convivially engaging friends over dinner. If this is indeed Day-Lewis’ last role, then he is leaving at the top of his game, his Reynolds a celebration, and summary, of his range and craftsmanship.

Vicky Krieps proves more than a match to Day-Lewis, one of the smartest casting decisions of the year just ended. Virtually unknown on this side of the planet, Krieps brings to Alma a sense of mystery, of indefinability. She’s coquettish and determined, enigmatic and strong-willed, her words quietly piercing through the force field Cyril and Reynolds have built around themselves. She is capable of hiding in the shadows, waiting for the right moment to impose her presence. She does not want Reynolds to take her love for granted and will use whatever means necessary have that love acknowledged and reciprocated in what ends up as one of the most subtly perverse relationships ever portrayed on the big screen.

"Phantom Thread" rarely ventures outdoors. Sunlight streams through the windows of the House of Woodcock and even then, it lacks the liberating, anarchic force of the Californian sunlight we’ve seen in Anderson’s films. What we have in its place, however, as photographed by Anderson himself who took on the role of Director of Photography for the first time since his 1988 short "The Dirk Diggler Story," is elegant, painterly, graceful. His camera glides across the rooms, he center-frames his characters in tight close-ups, all edited and shot to the rhythms of Greenwood’s equally sweeping score. It’s a film that seduces us even as it throws you off kilter. It is a work of art that beckons to be seen in the big screen countless times, especially in those select theaters playing it in 70mm, the format giving us a new entry point into the film’s many secrets and obsessions.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=31333&reviewer=434
originally posted: 01/10/18 15:00:25
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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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