Sunday, January 28, 2018

THE MOST DEMANDING MAN OF ALL: a review of "Phantom Thread"

Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

Every so often I arrive at films that I admire and appreciate--to even large degrees-more than I am actually fond of them. For Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson, he is increasingly making those types of films.

I have long announced and celebrated my love for the cinematic oeuvre of Paul Thoams Anderson and I whole heartedly agree with other film goers, critics and writers w ho feel that he is indeed one of the finest American cinematic directors working today as his vision remains powerfully idiosyncratic, making the release of each new film an event.

Now that being said, it has been quite some time since I have loved a Paul Thomas Anderson film, most specifically the outstanding, ahead of the curve "There Will Be Blood" (2007)  to be exact. This is not intended to be read as a criticism of the quality of his output. As far as quality is concerned, there are few filmmakers working in Anderson's stratosphere as his movie universes are distinctly his own. What I am saying is just an observation that I have felt for myself as his films have evolved or altered from the more visceral--like the Robert Altman/Martin Scorsese influenced masterpieces of both "Boogie Nights" (1997) and "Magnolia" (1999)--to the more clinical, cerebral, and emotionally detached a la Stanley Kubrick styled "The Master" (2012) and "Inherent Vice" (2014).

With his latest film,"Phantom Thread," Anderson continues within this vein, creating a world that purposefully feels as if it takes place within some overly meticulously designed cinematic snowglobe where every little thing fits within its correct placement. Its measured pacing is deliberate. Its ornate fashions equally so. In fact, the film feels to be more constrained and even claustrophobic than any of his past films and again, the coldness of the proceedings kept me at arms length. Trust me, this is not a warm film in the least. But even so, there is quite a nasty subversive streak threatening to blow the film apart that gave the film some electric bursts of energy all the while informing me that Paul Thomas Anderson has again made a film designed to challenge as well as re-visit, to truly digest everything that he clearly placed into it, especially the layers contained within what has been announced as Daniel Day-Lewis' final film performance.

Set in the couture world of 1950's London, "Phantom Thread" stars Daniel Day-Lewis as the improbably named Reynolds Woodcock, a well renowned fashion designer and dress maker for members of high society whose reputation for his meticulous attention and demands in his work and life are formidable to say the least. Still haunted by the death of his Mother, and having his equally formidable sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) as the force behind the day-to-day managerial responsibilities, Reynolds is able to fully devote himself to his craft (which includes inserting secret messages into his clothing) while enveloped in the world he has built to his fastidious specifications...personal relationships and definitely, romantic ones be damned, if need be. 

Upon visiting a restaurant in the countryside, Reynolds meets and is immediately attracted to a waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps). He asks her out for a date to which she accepts and soon, the two become a couple as Alma is enthralled with her entry into Reynolds' high fashion world, first as an assistant and soon, as his latest creative muse.

Yet, all is not golden in Reynolds Woodcock's world as his relationship with Alma begins to show signs of friction which then grows more tumultuous, from personality quirks to bickering to feeling that the status of his specialized universe is being threatened of becoming undone due to her presence as well as her assertion of power within their relationship dynamic.

Where women were once able to be tossed aside, Alma more than proves herself to be the one in which Reynolds may have met his match...a match in which he can either adapt or meet his downfall.

As with all of his past films, Paul Thomas Anderson's "Phantom Thread" is a lustrous production, armed with a resplendent set and sound design plus being magnificently edited by Dylan Tichnor,  beautifully scored by Composer Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead (his fourth collaboration with Anderson) and photographed by Anderson himself as Cinematographer (uncredited). Most of all, we again have an Anderson feature that is exceedingly well acted, truly not a surprise when you have Daniel Day-Lewis in the lead but even so, the skill on display is masterful.

In keeping with themes presented within both "There Will Be Blood" and "The Master," Paul Thomas Anderson's "Phantom Thread" is another exploration into the arenas of power, control and a battle of extreme wills between two unrepentant forces. As Reynolds Woodcock,  Daniel Day-Lewis give a tour de force performance by actually not being overly showy. His is a performance of restraint to the point of repression and containment to the point of being fully restricted, both qualities which seem to fly in the face of a character who has obtained artistic freedom.

With his immaculate presentation from his dress to his windswept backwards mane of grey hair to the upkeep of his home and all manner of routines and rules-- most especially, his morning breakfast ritual of sketching before eating and without any sense of emotional or auditory disruptions, the dichotomy of Reynolds Woodcock rests within a character who has spent so much of his life attaining control that the act of maintaining control may prove itself to being more stressful, difficult and precarious. Yes, he is a mercurial figure but we can also infer his unreasonable qualities, most notably his disregard for anyone else's feelings or wishes if they do not ultimately serve his own pursuits.

"Phantom Thread" is clearly a portrait of the self-imposed tortured artist, and one could wonder if Paul Thomas Anderson is utilizing this portrait for a bout of self-examination, self-preservation or even as a self-inflicted warning as to what not to become regarding his own artistic pursuits and how they balance with his personal life.  That all being said, Daniel Day-Lewis once again burrows so deeply into the role that there never seems to be a trace of the real person, or any of his past roles,  whatsoever. Regard his body language to the most minuscule movements, and I feel that what we are witnessing is a man desperately clinging to what he has achieved but so meticulous in his behavior so as to not let anything other than complete control visible to anyone--including his sister Cyril, who obviously possesses her own severe control issues.

Once Alma arrives into the House of Woodcock, and especially once she begins to demonstrate her ambition and her assertiveness, the effects of her audaciousness are seismic, making "Phantom Thread" a gradually vicious comedy of manners (which is indeed often laugh out loud funny) as well as an especially perceptive view into male/female power dynamics.

Vicky Krieps more than holds her own with Day-Lewis as their escalating conflicts, which begins as choice sharp words and passive-aggressive disruptions into areas that grow stranger, darker, more malicious as it feels that Alma has progressed beyond simply not bending to Reynolds' will but to dismantling it altogether. Just watch (or rather listen) to how she butters her toast or pours water into a glass, for instance and how those acts nearly cause Reynolds to shatter in fury as he realizes just how little control he actually possesses. Regard how Alma quickly escalates conversations into war of words with her quiet backtalk and how easily it upends Reynolds, bringing him into profanity laden outbursts. And it does not stop here...

To say anything more regarding the relationship between Reynolds and Alma would spoil the experience but with the elements of resilience, obsession, strength, cunning and even malice, the character of Alma may not be that far removed from figures we have seen in Danny DeVito's "The War Of The Roses" (1989), David Fincher's "Gone Girl" (2014) and both versions of "The Beguiled" (1971/2017), directed by Don Siegel and Sofia Coppola, respectively. 

The subversion within "Phantom Thread" feels to rest precisely in the reasons that I felt at a bit of a distance with this film overall, and how it also rocked me back and forth in a push/pull fashion. For all of the dollhouse aesthetics, Paul Thomas Anderson, through Reynolds and Alma's relationship and battles, keep threatening to shatter the film apart as if he is standing just this close to the set of "Masterpiece Theater" with a lit match ready to burn the entire palace down.

Watching Reynolds, Cyril and Alma, we have the entire upper crust English veneer, which is a cover for the seething rage underneath, and to watch that rage lash out as sharply and as instantaneously as a cobra's bite makes for not only some surprisingly big laughs but only increases the tension, which Anderson somehow keeps cerebral to the point where it just may fly into the visceral...but never really does. 

Again, I could not help but to wonder if "Phantom Thread" was a way for Anderson to comment upon his own filmography and the changes and growth he has made as an artist regarding the tonality of his earlier films when compared with his most recent work. Yet another layer to an already fascinating film that nevertheless I had some difficulty becoming fully engrossed with.

But isn't that the nature of some of our finest artists? They create works that truly require us to really live with them for some time before we can fully come to terms with our assessment of them. Paul Thomas Anderson, with each new film feels to be that very kind of filmmaker where accolades and/or pejoratives (however rare) may arrive too easily or too quickly, which is ultimately a disservice due to the effort he has placed into them to be explored time and again over a period of time, for us to sit with them, discuss them, and even debate and argue about them. 

Paul Thomas Anderson's "Phantom Thread" is one of those films where the critical star ratings never feel more arbitrary but the high quality on display and within the thematics is unquestionable. And as for Daniel Day-Lewis, to willingly end a film career with a project this complex, difficult, and often inimitable is a victory lap indeed. It is peerless work from an actor still at the top of his game in a film by a director who is firmly unapologetic.

How the movies really need figures like these and how less compelling the movies will be once they exit. For you, Daniel Day-Lewis, BRAVO!! For us, Paul Thomas Anderson's "Phantom Thread" is as elegant as it is confined, almost daring us to unravel its secrets.

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