By Noel Vera
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
HAVE TO admit this straight out: I know nothing about fashion or clothes. I’d repeat that in Andrew Sach’s approximation of a Basque accent but for the record and to get it out of the way when it comes to couture and textile and clothing design I know nothing. Nada.
Imagine my relief when Paul Thomas Anderson declares that his latest feature Phantom Thread isn’t about fashion either; it’s (he insists) about obsession, about an artist’s insistence on the primacy of his work, and a woman’s need for space and significance (In relation to a man? Now that’s a knotty question), about the constant struggle within a man to either be an inspired creative mind or a total pain in the ass. Probably a combination of or variation on both.
Oh, it’s also about Daniel Day-Lewis’ announcement that this would be his final performance on the big screen, so when he plays the role of Reynolds Woodcock, a fussy, hermetically sealed designer who insists on choosing his own models and lovers (usually the same woman) and who (though he never actually comes out and says it) prefers his women to butter their toasts silently — well you have to assume Day-Lewis is making some kind of statement.
Not sure; wouldn’t know for certain. It’s obvious stuff covered in magazine articles and web pages from here to eternity; watching the film I’m aware of the momentous nature of this, Day-Lewis’ Final Acting Challenge, how he’s reasonably mobile without serious neurological condition or clubbed foot or anything (translate: obvious awards fodder) — if there’s something the matter with his character, it’s inside. His world is perfect, his lifestyle is perfect, as a result his work — which admittedly earns him bread and butter plus spare change — is perfect down to the last stitch, and perfectly static. Time for a change.
Enter Alma (Vicky Krieps) and has anyone noted how Anderson seems to enjoy tweaking our noses with his characters’ names? There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview couldn’t be more obvious; Reynolds Woodcock? Fuhgeddaboudit. Alma in Spanish, for the record, means “soul,” which should suggest her function in the narrative.
Anyway, enter Alma and she’s shy and bumbling at first which readily draws Reynolds to her side; he wants her to have dinner with him, become his latest lover/model. Alma, after a brief pause, agrees with a smile. Krieps keeps it all admirably simple, mysterious: a combination of the naive and the guarded, an innocent harboring depths — a plain cotton dress if you like, with a few sharp needles hidden away here there.
Alma does have to contend with Reynolds’ sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) who recalls a more understated Mrs. Danvers by way of Madame Sebastian (maybe with a touch of Clara Thornhill tossed in the mix). Manville isn’t as vivid as either of these characters alas, though she seems more than capable of playing vivid; she’s conceived to be a foil to Alma, someone the girl can observe and draw on as a way of cracking open and gazing at the inner workings of Reynolds’ mind.
If I’m throwing names from Hitchcock films at you that’s deliberate. Anderson doesn’t really attempt (unlike, say, De Palma) to pay homage by evoking one of the master’s many memorable shots (though there is that giant closeup of Reynold’s eye peering into a peephole). This director seems more interested in creating an analogous feel — their atmosphere of romance and repression, guilt and lust — through his own more deliberately static style.
At a certain point you want to ask: if we’re channeling Hitchcock why not do it properly? An eerily illuminated glass of milk, a window frame in the shape of a spider web, a crane shot diving down into Alma’s tightly clenched fist? Anderson seems after different game (Skip the rest of this paragraph if you plan to see the film!): think Suspicion only with Hitchcock’s original ending restored, or love (after some sturm und drang) resolving itself on its own perverse terms. Hitchcock never managed something quite this twisted; took De Palma (or so Pauline Kael would claim) to realize the master’s more explicit fantasies for him. Not necessarily a good thing but here I submit it works: a case may be made that Reynolds is in a creative rut, that his clothes aren’t as innovative as those of his contemporaries (Balenciaga comes to mind), and that a change in circumstances — say a change in the power dynamics between him and his women — is just the cuppa he needs to sip to start his juices flowing again. Diarrhea is only one known side effect of Alma’s mushrooms — could they also have hallucinogenic (Doesn’t Reynolds see his mother at one point?)? And might that help somehow?
Arguably the film’s most serious flaw (as critic David Ehrenstein puts it) is its attempt at straightwashing the famous designers of the period — again I’ll plead little to no knowledge on the issue; I think it works as a straight romance, and will readily admit the film probably doesn’t come close to depicting the real period.
Which hasn’t stopped Anderson from going ahead, or me from enjoying his works warts and all. I’m taking this particular cup gingerly, conscious of what it is and what it fails to do: as one of Anderson’s fussy hermetically sealed exercises in style (which, when you think about it, isn’t all that different from the work of that other Anderson, he of the ultraconscious dollhouse/aquarium look). One of the better, more entertaining, if not entirely accurate films of last year — but what do I know? I wear clothes mainly to avoid being arrested.