Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Phantom Thread

The first film Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis made together, 2007's monumental There Will be Blood, brilliantly gave us a vivid sense of who its protagonist was in the opening minutes. A prospector in the late 19th century, Daniel Plainview was introduced working silently, doggedly and alone as he mined for silver. When he broke his leg in a calamitous fall, he dragged himself across the desolate landscape to stake his claim before giving a thought to medical attention. We instantly understood something fundamental about this man, and we could see that he had what it took to build an empire and to destroy anyone who dared to get in his way.

The pair achieve a similar trick at the start of Phantom Thread. When we see Reynolds Woodcock dressing and preparing for the day – pulling on his socks, combing his hair, buffing his shoes – his every move is fastidious and rehearsed; this is clearly a morning ritual that has been in place for a very long time. Reynolds is a renowned dressmaker and, like many artists, he needs everything to be in place, the atmosphere to be just so, in order to create. At the breakfast table he sits and works quietly with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) and the current woman in his life Johanna, (Camilla Rutherford), who has had enough of these stifling breakfasts and dares to say so, puncturing the solemn air. Shortly afterwards, the decision is made to get rid of her. “She's lovely,” Cyril advises him, “but the time has come.” There have been many women before Johanna, and there will surely be more.

You might think we're back in Plainview territory here, with another fiercely selfish character driven by an obsessive desire to dominate in his field, a man who will use up and throw away whoever he needs and won't brook any obstruction or dissent. You might think you know where Phantom Thread is going, but you'd be wrong. When a young waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps) literally stumbles into Reynolds' view, the whole movie seems to trip along with her. She's a little awkward and hesitant, and her initial conversations with him are punctuated by odd pauses. “If you want to have a staring contest with me,” she playfully tells him after one such period of silence, “you will lose.” Reynolds is smitten, if for no other reason than because her body is his ideal shape, but she is not the type to play the quiet muse. “No one can stand as long as I can,” she proudly boasts. An ideal trait for a model, of course, but also indicative of a steely determination that may exceed the master's own.

Phantom Thread is, in many ways, new territory for Anderson. It's the first film he had made outside of the United States and the first on which he has acted as his own cinematographer (not taking a credit, but doing astonishingly elegant and evocative work); but the central relationship makes it feel like a kind of companion piece to The Master. That 2012 film is Anderson's most evasive and oblique, but Phantom Thread is utterly captivating from the opening frames, moving with a briskness and verve that I found irresistible, and finding so much unexpected humour  in the shifting power dynamic between Reynolds, Alma and Cyril. While films such as Rebecca and The Red Shoes and directors like Max Ophüls and David Lean are obvious references points for this film, Reynolds' growing unease with his new wife put me in mind of Elaine May's The Heartbreak Kid, and during one of their breakfasts together the aggravating sound effects  as Alma butters her toast or pours her tea  are ramped up to absurd levels. Reynold and Alma's romantic bond is sealed during a late-night heist, when they attempt to reclaim one of his dresses from a drunken socialite, and Reynolds is prone to shouting things like “No one gives a tinker's fucking curse about Mrs. Vaughn's satisfaction!” when he flies off the handle. Phantom Thread is a film about a perverse, toxic relationship that plays gloriously as a wry and raucous romantic comedy.

Anderson's judgement of tone throughout Phantom Thread is remarkable. The comedy never undermines the complex emotional battles and psychological gamesmanship inside these central relationships, and the director succeeds in laying out a straightforward and utterly engaging narrative while constantly taking surprising detours and keeping aspects of his characters shrouded in mystery – like secrets sewn into the lining of his film. He has always drawn wonderful work from his actors, of course, but what is striking here is the discipline and refinement that he brings to his direction of his cast. As the two women working around the fragile but demanding male ego at the film's centre, Lesley Manville and Vicky Krieps have so many moments when a simple glance of a pointed silence can communicate volumes about their innermost thoughts. When they push back against Reynolds we believe in their quiet determination, and he looks completely dumbfounded when faced with two such formidable adversaries. For the very first time, he is not the master of his domain.

And what of Daniel Day-Lewis? The recent announcement of his retirement has inevitably cast a different light on this final appearance, and it does feel like a valedictory work, as well as being perhaps his most nakedly personal performance. There is no accent or extravagant facial hair here; there is no great physical transformation. There is just this unbelievably compelling and charismatic actor inhabiting the role of an artist and artisan in a film about the toll that the pursuit of perfection takes on the mind, body and spirit, and the occasional need to break the cycle. The star worked closely with Anderson as he developed the script and it almost feels like a tacit autobiography. Maybe he feels exhausted after this experience, understandably so, or maybe he simply feels like there is nothing left to say. Daniel Day-Lewis has given us many indelible performances, but in Phantom Thread it feels like he's giving us himself.