Sunday, January 28, 2018

Catching up with the Awards Season: Phantom Thread

Very few directors can build a sense of dread and maintain it through a three act structure like Paul Thomas Anderson. In his latest film Phantom Thread we sense a supernatural threat from its elegant title, but in this film ghosts might haunt the living, but they are quiet, serene, unsettling apparitions. The real dread comes from the living, especially those that enter the orbit of Reynolds Woodcock, a dress designer of haute couture played with calculated restraint by Daniel Day-Lewis, in what he has promised to be his last screen performance. If this turns out to be true, he has left us the most enigmatic creation in his catalogue of amazing performances.

The House of Woodcock’s artistic denizen as played by Mr. Day-Lewis is a mixture of many famous designers, from Christian Dior to Cristobal Balenciaga (director Anderson became very interested in Balenciaga as he was writing the screenplay), and even the late Gianni Versace and his sister Donatella.  In fact, in this film the backbone of the Woodcock enterprise is Cyril Woodcock, Reynolds's sister, played by the incredible Leslie Manville, a frequent collaborator of director Mike Leigh, an actress who can speak volumes with a raised eyebrow. If Mr. Lewis’s performance is restrained, Ms. Manville’s performance resides in her Zen mask where the audience can project their longings and questions about this story.  Not surprisingly, she offers few answers, keeping her character mysterious and distant.  But when it comes to her relationship with the other characters, especially her brother, she is undoubtedly the commanding one.

On a weekend trip to the country, driving his car as if he was either pursued by the Furies, or wishing to crash, Woodcock meets a waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps), who immediately becomes his latest muse, and moves in with him to his fashionable house/atelier.  They are a mismatched couple from the start.  The exacting Woodcock is bothered by any little noise she makes at the breakfast table, and all he seems to want to do is work, rest, and brood about the proximity of death.  And it is this death wish that propels the character forward, imagining his dead mother dressed in her bridal gown in his room, while maintaining a dominant attitude towards Alma.  But Alma knows that the way to a man's heart might just be through his stomach, and devises a plan where she can switch the established roles in their relationship -- a harrowing decision that adds a dark sense of dominance and submission to their life.

I was able to see Phantom Thread projected in 70mm film this afternoon, a rare treat from years past, perfect for this kind of story that takes place at a time when watching a film was the most common thing in the world.  Paul Thomas Anderson served as his own cinematographer in this film, although he gave his long-time cameraman Michael Bauman the title of "lighting cameraman," shades of what Stanley Kubrick did with John Alcott in Barry Lyndon.  Bottom line is that the film did not get a nomination for its cinematography, which is a shame because it is a sumptuous looking work.

I recommend this film, but only if you enjoy a kind of cinema that does not answer all the questions, and leaves you thinking about possible answers.

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