' ' Cinema Romantico: Phantom Thread

Monday, January 29, 2018

Phantom Thread

As is typical with latter day Paul Thomas Anderson Events, there are vast depths to purge in his latest opus “Phantom Thread”, a wholly original creation rather than an adaptation, even if it liberally quotes all manner of Hitchcock. Those depths, however, are not merely weighted more toward the end but brought down in the mix. “Phantom Thread” is not as joyously wispy a creation as his previous “Inherent Vice”, though it has more stiff comedy coursing through its veins than you might expect, but nevertheless an enticing ode to exacting craftsmanship. That artistry is evoked in ornately monikered main character Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a meticulous fashion designer, yes, but just as much in Anderson’s own auteurist majesty. If “Phantom Thread” ultimately reveals itself as something like a romance with scant traditional ardor, the movie’s aesthetic is so audiovisually intoxicating that simply watching this movie is to fall head over heels in love. But then, that cinematic ravishment also functions as something akin to misdirection before Anderson as metaphorical dressmaker reveals the figurative gown he has fitted us for is so slender in the neck that all the life in us is being choked out.

If previous Anderson movie environs have been all-encompassing metaphorical dirges for certain ways of American life, “Phantom Thread” goes the other way, a surprisingly intimate chamber drama that gets right up close, emblemized in Woodcock’s morning routine where he shines his shoes, styles his hair, and snips away the hairs in his nose. If the latter often suggests vanity, it seems to go further here, suggesting the old phrase cleanliness is next to godliness, which is sort of how Woodcock sees himself, as god of the House of Woodcock. That’s the figure he cuts as the movie begins sitting at the end of his dining table, physically with his significant other yet still utterly unto himself, and when she deigns to serve him fattening sweet rolls, he kicks her out. Well, he does not kick her out so much as silently delegate his dressmaking deputy Cyril (Lesley Manville) to do it for him.

Though Cyril is his sister, she suggests Madame Anna Sebastian, the Machiavellian mother of Claude Rains’s character in Hitchcock’s “Notorious”, as much in charge as him whether or not he knows it, which he probably doesn’t. Indeed, Manville has Cyril receive Reynolds’s dictums and tongue-lashings so coolly that the idea of him being wrapped around her finger just intrinsically emerges. And Day-Lewis does not so much temper his tantrums by letting all the hot air out as allowing the hot air to build to a point of almost weird burlesque, like the sure be be iconic scene in which his emergent love interest scrapes butter across toast so loudly that he throws a fit. It’s not the buttering that is funny so much as his petulance drolly being raised; it’s like Day-Lewis is playing The Cowardly Lion without removing his mask.

His turn is not unlike Anderson’s photography, almost seeming to reshape its mood within frames, from domineering to defeated to delicate and back again. He is never more delicate than when Reynolds meets his match in the form of Alma (Vicky Krieps) who is waitressing at some seaside café, with flushed cheeks suggesting an innocence waiting to be corrupted, where he shows up to unwind, and where Day-Lewis transforms placing a breakfast order into a kind of courtlier version of Michael Fassbender staring at the woman on the subway in “Shame.” Woodcock is working up an emotional appetite, of course, one that takes form not so much in lovemaking as dressmaking, as he concludes their first date not by squiring her to the boudoir but his workshop.

In effect, Reynolds reduces Alma to a mannequin, propping her up and taking her measurements while Cyril records them. When Alma laments the size of her breasts, Reynolds remarks that it’s his job to give her some, if he chooses to, a line Day-Lewis gives an air of less control than doing-his-job fact. If it sounds off-putting, well, it is and isn’t, as Krieps plays Alma with a sense of at once being taken aback and turned on, underlined in the sequence’s searing Christopher Scarabosio sound design – the smack of the tape measure, the scribble of the pencil, the way shoes slide across the wood floor – that is so piercing it can make you cringe even if you simultaneously, improbably sense yourself getting aurally high, like one might aromatically from the smells of a kitchen.

That we never quite know where Alma came from never feels like a flaw but just right, emblemized in how she goes on to become Woodcock’s muse, sculpted into what he wants her to be. But if most movies might have let matters lie there, “Phantom Thread” then charts Alma’s esoteric journey to twisted self-actualization, which Krieps plays not by sitting in the middle of the boxing ring and slugging it out with Day-Lewis but deftly coming in from the side. Impressively, only once the movie is all over do you see the way in which Anderson’s turn laid in wait all along. It’s not something you put together like a puzzle post-screening, though, because the movie isn’t a riddle to be solved, so much as seek to wrap your bent mind around. I’m being coy here, I understand, and I apologize, but it’s delicate to discuss just how “Phantom Thread” upends its basic blueprint for something else instead, which, in essence, is what Alma does, not allowing herself to simply be talked to but talking back in ways you would not believe.

But if that makes it sound feel-good, that’s not quite right either, achieving some other plain that suggests peace, love and understanding in almost brutish, otherworldly form. That ethereal sensation, however, does not completely separate them from our current world, even if Anderson’s movie makes no overtures of timeliness. Maybe that’s because “Phantom Thread’s” détente is rooted in something ageless, one, weird as it may sound, that sort of reminded me of “The Princess Bride’s” Westley building up immunity to iocane power, and how humanity’s toxins might best be combatted by simply embracing them.

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