Phantom Thread (2017)

Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring Vicky Krieps, Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville

Spoilers, for those averse to them.

One of the interesting developments in Daniel Day-Lewis’ acting is how thin he’s gotten. The man has never been chunky, but it’s been twenty-five years since Last of the Mohicans and fifteen since Gangs of New York, two movies partially made on his muscular swagger. The movie calls upon one of those old-fashioned sequences of a man getting dressed in the early going, and in it we see a man shrunken, practically. No one in this movie has the power to make Day-Lewis short, but how easily we see the muscles in his face and the way his jaw looks; how thin his calves seem as he puts on those lurid socks; his torso seems much more concave than usual. One gets the sense that he does not eat much; we watch him drink lapsang souchong at breakfast every morning but we never see him take more than a bite of one of the pastries at the table. He has a table set aside at his favorite restaurant, but we don’t see him do more than drink martinis. (He also has one of those jobs that keep his hands occupied at all times, which would rather impede snacking.)

So it is deeply important that the first time Reynolds (Day-Lewis) meets Alma (Krieps), his appetite returns, and will continue to do so when he is most pleased with her. At the cafe, he orders Welsh rarebit, eggs, sausage, bacon, scones, and more, a feast which puts him on Walt, Jr’s level for love of breakfast; Alma leaves him a paper with his order addressed to the “hungry boy,” the first artifact of their affair and one of primary importance. It may not be she who feeds him, but she is part of his sustenance, of his provision, and that is the role she seeks to carry on even when he makes it clear that no one gets to have that part. Food is also the tinder of one of their worst fights, when Reynolds is served asparagus with butter by Alma. (Alma is determined to have a nice, intimate evening with Reynolds, and surprises him with dinner and an empty house; it is a transparently bad idea.) The ruckus begins when Reynolds cannot hold back his complaint that she knows he prefers asparagus with oil, and ratchets up to half-mocking accusations along the lines of “Have you been sent here to kill me? Where’s your gun?”

Anderson is setting up, in those sequences, two deeply interesting lines of thought which will carry through the movie. First, that even with the camera’s frequently (but not inexorably, darn it!) masculine gaze, it is a man’s body which accrues most of our attention. Not only will we see him in various stages of disheveled undress, but we will also spend a lot of our effort in the back half wondering how his body will manage the mycophagic madness it must suffer through. Second, that where women’s bodies are concerned, they are placed with great frequency in a dress which distracts, I found, from the body itself. Because Reynolds Woodcock, the Biggusdickus of the ’50s London fashion scene, is a dressmaker, everything relates back to him somehow. One might read that as a feature of Reynolds’ domineering professional attitude, in which any female body which wears his dress is sublimated somehow to his desires and whims. One might also read that as a deflection of the predatory sexual inclination which the masculine camera often places on female bodies; it is not the body which is interesting, but the dress which is read as some notion of Reynolds’ character.

The movie suggests that the dresses are meant to be an extension of Reynolds. Aside from the obsessive quality of his work, which takes up all of his time and interest, he is not above going after a dress which is already on someone else’s body. It’s the moment when Reynolds loves Alma the most, I think, when she gets angry looking at a woman wearing a dress from the House of Woodcock get sloppy drunk. She doesn’t deserve to wear that dress, Alma says, as aggravated as we’ve seen her at any time in the movie. Reynolds agrees, and in one of the movie’s standout scenes, Reynolds shouts down a little old lady who answers the door and Alma pulls the dress off of a woman who has passed out drinking. (There’s a line that Day-Lewis drops which is already very close to “I drink your milkshake!” in my heart.) It’s funny, and as I said already I think it’s a deeply important moment in the courtship of Reynolds and Alma. But it also plays at a question which has changed in practice but has remained largely unchanged for millennia: whose art is it? (One of the first posts I ever did on this blog, about The People vs. George Lucas, is almost entirely about that question.)

For a moviemaker like Anderson and his audience (like me!), one can fool with the knobs and arrive at some made-up percentages about how much is the audience’s, how much is the director’s, how much is the casting director’s, how much is the extra who appears in the background of a scene, how much is the intern’s at Annapurna, whatever. For a dressmaker and the dress-wearer, it is far easier to come up with all the individuals who might have a share of the dress and far more difficult to actually come up with an answer. Should an architect be able to set conditions for furniture, wall hangings, and other sundries in the client’s home residence? It is, after all, the artistic brainchild of the architect, and there are homes which are unambiguously art. Should a dressmaker be able to set conditions for personal behavior while his client wears the dress he’s made? I find Phantom Thread sympathetic to both arguments, and generally to the argument that a craftsman has some say in what the person with the money does with what s/he’s bought; even if it comes out of a place of obsession, I think it’s fairly convincing. Reynolds says early on that he discovered as a young man that one could sew anything into an item of clothing. For Alma, he sews her name into the lining. For a princess he has clothed since her baptism, he sews “Never cursed” into her wedding dress. For himself, so we hear, he sews a lock of his mother’s hair into a jacket. If there were a way to ensure that some of his blood made its way into every item of clothing he made, I imagine he would do so.

Anderson has always had a way with names: “Daniel Plainview” and “Eli Sunday,” “Frank T.J. Mackey” and “Stanley Spector,” “Freddie Quell” and “Lancaster Dodd,” the entire cast of characters in Boogie Nights. Reynolds and Cyril Woodcock (Lesley Manville) are distinctive as all get-out, but “Alma Elson” seems particularly interesting. She shares with previous Anderson characters like “Solomon Solomon” and “Bill William” a repetitive name, even if it is more about consonance than actual duplication. Compared to the Woodcocks, who are both a little wooden, ha ha, Alma is significantly more human. (In one scene, Reynolds becomes seriously ill and collapses during review of a wedding dress due for delivery. The employees come to Cyril, who has a very difficult time understanding what has happened because, apparently, Reynolds has never been ill before.) In a movie theater, Alma’s tremendously loud method of buttering and eating toast is enough to give the least sensitive among us a case of misophonia. Reynolds complains that it’s as if a horse just went through the room. Give Anderson all the credit in the world for making the perfectly normal things she wants to do seem like about as normal as a horse running through the room: she wants to go to a party and dance on New Year’s Eve! she wants to be a more active part of her husband’s professional life! she wants to make dinner for Reynolds and surprise him with it! In Cyril’s other marvelous moment of “I don’t understand what you’re saying because it makes literally no sense in the context of my world,” Alma comes to her with the plan to surprise Reynolds. In a beautifully English moment of understatement, Cyril tries very hard to make Alma see that surprising Reynolds is just a terrible idea. It is unsurprising that “Alma,” in the sense that our names mean anything, means “soul.” Krieps is a revelation in the picture, playing the only person with anything like a recognizable soul, the only person for whom interiority exists. Everything about Reynolds and Cyril is on the outside, if we’re honest; what Alma considers, what Alma thinks about, what Alma wants is kept inside and made hard and stubborn in the same way a diamond is. She criticizes Reynolds for playacting almost from the beginning, of putting on some hard exterior for show. She knows what it is to be hard, to be impossible to dislodge, and she knows that it comes from inside and is not worn, for lack of a better word. Anderson has never used close-ups, and certainly not extreme close-ups, with the frequency he does in Phantom Thread, and it is Krieps who justifies the strategy.

What doesn’t work so well is a weird reliance on using fairly weak strategies to make an essential point, or to move the plot forward. After Alma has poisoned Reynolds, Reynolds is in bed and he sees his mother near the door, young and wearing the wedding dress he made for her. He speaks to her, tries to get her to speak to him, tells her how much he misses her, wishes that he could tell her about his day. In the morning, having thoroughly purged his system, he wakes up and in view of the wedding dress his team has worked through the night to recreate after he broke the last one, asks Alma to marry him. (“Never cursed,” reads the wedding dress, which we cannot say for the woman who accepts the proposal. The movie has already made it clear that the superstitions of unmarried women touching wedding dresses are many and deep-seeded.) In other words: a man has a near-death experience, or something quite like it, sees his mother, whom he loves, and decides to marry the woman most like his mother. It feels surprisingly empty, but less forced, even, than a scene where a recently married Reynolds leaves a fitting to go to Cyril and complain about how badly the marriage is going. Believe it or not, Alma comes in quietly and hears some of the things Reynolds says. Just as Reynolds’ spectral mother forces a motion, so too does Alma’s secret peek-in force her hand. Once more she decides to poison Reynolds, to weaken him, to put him on his back, to make him like a slightly wriggling octopus to be speared on a fork and eaten alive. The rapid marriage and the omelette are both powerful in their own ways, but how we get there is too clumsy. Earlier on, the movie made a point of recognizing a “precious” lace that Reynolds “rescued” from Antwerp; anything less delicate and fine than that lace simply does not come out true.

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