Sew into you: Phantom Thread (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 27, 2018)

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It wasn’t just me. Halfway through Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson’s claustrophobic chamber drama examining the pitfalls of obsessive, overly-possessive love in its many-splintered guises, I began to think “Uh-Hitchcock’s Rebecca? Anyone?”

Fast-forward a few days, and I stumble across a Rolling Stone interview with Anderson:

[Anderson] “I love Hitchcock’s Rebecca so much, but I watch it and about halfway through, I always find myself wishing that Joan Fontaine would just say, “Right, I have had enough of your shit. I think I have had more than my fair share of your bullshit, so let me just get the fuck out of here.” [Laughs] And yet poor Joan has to keep putting up with it.”

Well okay, then.

If you are not familiar, Rebecca is Hitchcock’s adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel about a young woman (Joan Fontaine) who falls in love with a rich widower (Laurence Olivier). They quickly marry, and he spirits her away to his lavish estate. Initially, it’s like a storybook romance for the young bride; but she soon finds herself at loggerheads with an imperious, overly-intrusive housekeeper, who strictly enforces a stringent set of “house rules” (like one of those severe matrons in a women’s prison film). And indeed, the question becomes: is the young wife the mistress of the house…or is she its prisoner?

Which begs a question. Why do people tend to take more than their fair share of bullshit (and usually for much longer than they should) when they are in a less-than-ideal relationship? Is it as simple as Woody Allen conjectured…“Because we need the eggs”?

Ah, the mysteries of love. But back to the subject at hand, before I lose the thread (sorry).

Anderson has reenlisted his There Will Be Blood leading man, Daniel Day-Lewis. In (what is purported to be) his swan song role, Day-Lewis inhabits Reynolds Woodcock, a London-based, high-end fashion designer who caters to the fashionistas and blue bloods of 1950s Europe. As I watched Day-Lewis’ elegantly measured characterization unfold, I kept flashing on the lyrics from an old Queen song. Reynolds Woodcock is well versed in etiquette, insatiable in appetite, fastidious and precise-and guaranteed to blow your mind.

This is one weird cat; which is to say, a typical Anderson study. Handsome, charismatic and exquisitely tailored, Woodcock easily charms any woman in his proximity, yet…something about him is cold and distant as the moon. He may even be on the spectrum, with his intense focus and single-mindedness about his work (or perhaps that’s the definition of genius, in any profession?). At any rate, Woodcock is an atypical male, with an apprising gaze that suggests he’s mentally dressing every new woman he meets.

One day, while enjoying a country getaway, the well-appointed, metropolitan Woodcock espies the woman (or the muse?) of his dreams-a young waitress of modest means and nebulous European accent, named Alma (Vicky Krieps). It appears to be love at first sight, but appearances can be deceiving. The disparity between what Reynolds and Alma each defines as “love” informs the ensuing relationship, and the film’s central narrative.

Akin to the aforementioned Hitchcock film, the star-struck young woman/soon-to-be bride is spirited off to lavish digs, where she finds herself at loggerheads with an imperious, overly-intrusive figure who strictly enforces a stringent set of “house rules”. In this case, the third wheel isn’t the housekeeper, but rather Reynold’s sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), also his business partner. Without giving too much away, this is where Anderson’s film significantly parts ways with Hitchcock’s; as the issue of who is the “warden” and who is the “prisoner” in this love relationship becomes a shifting dynamic.

Whether or not we are conscious of it, there’s always a tenuous “balance of power” in any relationship, personal or familial. In this respect, Phantom Thread, while a unique entry in an already offbeat canon, does retain certain themes prevalent throughout Anderson’s oeuvre. As I observed in my review of Anderson’s 2012 drama, The Master:

And so begins the life-altering relationship between the two men, which vacillates tenuously between master/servant, mentor/apprentice, and father/son (the latter recalling Philip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly in “Hard Eight”, Burt Reynolds and Mark Wahlberg in “Boogie Nights”, Tom Cruise and Jason Robards in “Magnolia”, and Daniel Day-Lewis and Dillon Freasier/Paul Dano in “There Will Be Blood”).

Obviously, there is no “father/son” (nor “father/daughter”-thank god) analogy to Reynold and Alma’s love affair in Phantom Thread, but their relationship does vacillate between husband/wife, artist/muse, mentor/apprentice, and (in its own fashion) master/servant.

It seems redundant to tell you that Daniel Day-Lewis’ typically immersive performance is nothing short of astonishing. If he really is hanging up his Oscar-baiting shoes after this one, I’m missing him already (as is the Academy, apparently…he snagged a Best Actor nomination earlier this week). Krieps and Manville (up for Best Supporting Actress) are also quite wonderful. Like most of the director’s work, it may not be for all tastes, but if you are up for a challenge and willing to pay attention, this movie is tailor-made for you.

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