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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Director Report Card: Paul Thomas Anderson (2017)

8. Phantom Thread

Just the announcement of a new Paul Thomas Anderson movie is an event. That's the level of anticipation that greets your new projects when you've made at least three era defining masterpieces. His latest, “Phantom Thread,” was an especially mysterious venture. Up until its release, we only had a vague plot summary – that it was about a fashion design in 1950s England – to go on. The film saw Anderson re-teaming with Daniel Day-Lewis, which made “There Will Be Blood” fans go crazy. Then the announcement came that Day-Lewis was retiring following the film's completion. For all these reasons and more, “Phantom Thread” was hotly greeted by cinema fans. The movie, perhaps Anderson's most difficult to unravel, has already spurned debate and discussion.

Reynolds Woodcock is the greatest fashion designer of his day. He has designed gowns for princesses, movie stars, the rich and famous world over. Privately, he's a guarded, conflicted man, living with a controlling older sister and obsessed with his dead mother. While getting lunch at a  country diner, he meets a waitress named Alma. He asks her out on a date and she quickly falls in love with him. Reynolds, however, proves a difficult man to love and live with. Soon, Alma takes drastic measures to earn his affections.

With “Punch Drunk Love,” Paul Thomas Anderson made a movie about the sea-sick, whirlwind feelings that occur when falling in love. “Phantom Thread” is also a love story but couldn't be more different from Anderson's earlier film. This is a movie about how difficult it can be to love someone. Alma and Reynolds' relationship ebbs and flows wildly. They have close, intimate, even sweet moments together. These can then be followed with ugly fights, Reynolds becoming upset over trivial manners. As is often the case in real relationships, one partner takes and the other gives. “Phantom Thread” is all about the tension that can exist even between the most loving partners.

Sometimes that tension even manifests in a more visceral way. Since “Phantom Thread” has been such a mysterious project, I've heard the film described as belonging to several different genres. Some have referred to the movie as a thriller. This isn't incorrect. There's frequently a quiet unease running throughout “Phantom Thread.” Alma and Woodcok's first date turns awkward when the subject of his dead mother comes up. Reynolds sister, Cyril, exerts a sinister, unnerving influence on her brother. As the relationship comes close to collapsing, during a tense dinner or a New Year's Eve party, you often wonder how violently things are going to fall apart. “Phantom Thread” is indeed a thriller, where all the thrills exist in the quiet space between two people. A ghost, of sorts, even appears at one.

Yet I've also seen “Phantom Thread” called a comedy. This is somewhat true as well, as the film slowly reveals itself to be an extremely dry comedy of manners. Reynolds Woodcock is a supremely awkward person. He's prone to impolite outburst. During a fever, he repeatedly tells the doctor to “fuck off.” When well, and running into the same man at a Christmas party, he repeats the insult. The scene where he falls sick also has a sudden, odd comedy to it, the man collapsing suddenly. Depending on how you see the film, a scene where Woodcock becomes agitated because of asparagus is ever deeply unsettling or wryly funny. “Phantom Thread” tows this odd genre line, funny or uncomfortable depending on how you react to it.

As I review “Phantom Thread,” its the same week the final film in the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy comes out. Anderson's latest film presents an interesting contrast. This is also a deeply kinky film, without any actual sex being depicted on-screen. Woodcock and Alma's first date concludes with her coming back to his house. She stripes down to her undergarments, while Woodcock records her measurements. The film's conclusion has Woodcock giving himself up to Alma in a similarly humiliating way. It's hard to imagine someone as anally retentive as Reynolds Woodcock ever having physical sex. It seems these odd games of control, manipulation and exhibition, are the closest he can get to physical intimacy. (The film also luxuriates in rich food, a visceral, bodily pleasure Woodcock can enjoy, that almost takes the place of sex.) This is another way in which “Phantom Thread” is a very atypical love story.

More than anything else, I related to “Phantom Thread” as a story about perfectionism. Reynolds Woodcock demands every facet of his life be planned out and controlled. This is set out early on, when he orders a very specific meal at Alma's dinner. Any disruption to this schedule greatly upsets him. Alma simply entering his workshop while he's stitching a gown is enough to piss him off. Her making a little more noise then usual at breakfast enrages him. Further more, he demands perfection from his product. When a drunken, depressed debutante passes out in one of his dresses, he insists she take it off, as she's sullying his work. This is because his work is his life, as evident in the secret, personal messages he weaves into his outfits, the titular phantom threads. As a perfectionist with some obsessive-compulsive tendencies, Anderson's latest impresses me the most when focusing on how Woodcock's obsessive desire for perfection disrupts any semblance of a normal life.

Most of the press that has greeted the film has surrounded Daniel Day-Lewis' announcing his retirement, supposedly to pursue dress-making, the profession he learned while preparing to make “Phantom Thread.” Day-Lewis' performance here is not the theatrical, spine-rattling style of acting he displayed in “There Will Be Blood.” Woodcock is a far more reserved character than the thundering Daniel Plainview. He's quiet, his obsessions often working at him from the inside out. Day-Lewis, as always, puts an insane amount of detail and obvious thought into his acting. Woodcock's physicality suggests his emotional repression. His greater neurosis – his hang-ups about his dead mother, his odd relationship with his sister – are expressed mostly by what he doesn't say. Yes, it's a fantastic performance, a rich and thoughtful bit of acting.

Starring opposite Day-Lewis is Vicky Krieps, a relatively unknown character actress. Krieps, however, is just as good as the lead actor. Krieps' body language is as controlled, as expressive about the characters' inner thoughts, as Day-Lewis' is. Where Woodcock keeps his feeling bottled, Alma is more intuitive and feeling. Her attempts to interact with him, to pierce his prickly personality, frustrates her. Krieps displays this frustration in the most charming way possible. She plays Alma like a real person, desperate to connect with this person she has feelings for but finding it difficult. It's an impressive performance and I don't know how Krieps didn't earn a Oscar nomination herself.

Lesley Manville did, however, grab a Best Supporting Actress nomination. She plays Cyril, the closest thing “Phantom Thread” has to an antagonist. While Woodcock's obsessive tendencies are often counteracted by an occasional sweetness or vulnerability, Cyril is always hard and judgmental. She's more practical than her brother and seems to openly resent Alma. Instead of trying to keep the two together, she considers the girl a petty distraction for Reynolds. Of the film's primary characters, Cyril is probably the least explored, making Manville's performance more difficult to judge. The character is so unlikable and I found Manville's acting didn't overcome this status.

Being a movie about perfection, every aspect of “Phantom Thread” is sumptuously detailed. The costumes and production designs is incredible. There's so much meaning in every background item. The film is a feast for the eyes, the viewer being wowed by the amount of skill and work on display in every minute of this motion picture. The period details are accurate but, more importantly, reflect the character's world. The costumes, naturally, are brilliant and beautifully designed. Even the sound design is incredible, especially in moments such as that disastrous breakfast. Someone spreading butter on a piece of toast is made to sound like fingers on a chalkboard. As strictly a technical achievement, “Phantom Thread” is incredible.

Anderson just pointing his camera at this extraordinary detail would probably be enough. Instead, his visual approach to the film is just as meaningful as the rest of it. He switches back and forth between moments of overwhelming stillness – such as Alma and Reynolds' dinner, which is primarily shot in two static ways – with scenes that have more motion to them. Such as the camera following behind Reynolds' car as he drives towards Alma's restaurant. Or the dressmaker rushing into a wild New Year's party to retrieve the woman. Johnny Greenwood, by now Anderson's go-to composer, provides a score to match. The music fluctuates between throbbing low chords and sweeping, romantic themes.

When a director has made as many great films as Paul Thomas Anderson has, it's hard to decide where his latest work falls. “Phantom Thread” is a more mysterious film than his more widely recognized masterpieces. I have no doubt people will be trying to unravel its unspoken secrets for years to come. It's also a beautifully constructed and deeply beguiling film, with fantastic performances, that gracefully dances towards one of 2017's most meaningful endings. If it is indeed Daniel Day-Lewis' final film, it's an awfully good note to go out on. [Grade: A-]

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