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Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread

Paul Thomas Anderson (2017)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest offering, Phantom Thread, seems at first to be a strange choice for a Best Picture nominee. Though critics have been effusive about the film, actual audiences have been less than thrilled. With a 69 percent audience-approval rating on Rottentomatoes.com (in contrast with a 91 percent critics rating), this film has the lowest audience approval score of all the nine films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar—and that rating is from people who went to the film knowing something about it and expecting to like it. One wonders, for instance, why Phantom Thread received the nod over, say, I, Tonya, or (from much earlier in the year) The Big Sick, both of which were well reviewed but also very popular with audiences.

Perhaps to some extent the Best Picture nomination was the result of looking at the film as the sum of its parts, since it was also nominated for five more Academy Awards. One of these, for Costume Design, it probably has a lock on winning. It’s a film about fashion design, and therefore is full of luxurious and colorful haute couture. If Mark Bridges wins this Oscar, it will be well deserved. Also nominated is Jonny Greenwood for his original score. Greenwood, who rose to prominence as guitarist for Radiohead, first worked with Anderson on his film There Will Be Blood in 2007, and has scored every Anderson film since. He mixes classical pieces with compositions of his own in the score to create an effective and haunting musical background for the film’s action. Such as it is.

Sorry, I don’t mean to be snide, but I did find the film quite slow moving and, frankly, pretty dull. Which may have something to do with the lower audience approval rating for the film. Film audiences like to see a story that moves along. Film critics are fascinated by visuals, and often think of plot and character as something secondary. It’s not such a mystery, then, that critics would love this film, which is gorgeous to look at, and ignore the parts that put me to sleep (I admit I’m old and go to sleep pretty easily). The Academy seemed to feel the same as the critics, rather than the audiences, and also nominated Anderson for a Best Director Oscar, while we moviegoers might be scratching our collective heads over a category that would nominate Anderson for this film, yet fail to nominate Martin McDonagh for the brilliant (and never dull) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Three-time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis (My Left Foot, There Wil Be Blood, Lincoln) is nominated for another for his role as Reynolds Woodcock, a fashion designer for the rich and famous in 1950s London. By reputation as fastidiously devoted to his art as the character he is playing, Day-Lewis has proclaimed that this is his final role before retirement, having opted to partner once more with his director from There Will Be Blood. Woodcock, who might more accurately be named Peacock, is a spoiled, narcissistic, artistic “genius” whose world revolves around his entitled self and who expects it to remain that way. A confirmed bachelor, he spends his opening scene in the film berating his latest romantic interest for daring to bring sticky buns to the breakfast table and insisting quietly but petulantly that he “cannot have conflict” at breakfast. Having completely alienated the audience with barely three lines of dialogue, he assents to his sister Cyril’s offer to send the woman packing.

Cyril, played with perfectly restrained imperiousness by Lesley Manville (Another Year, Mum) is Reynold’s business partner and the person who actually seems to insulate him from the real world and the consequences of his self-centered, antisocial, insensitive and sometimes downright cruel behavior, and though she appears in the beginning to be just another person he runs roughshod over, we realize as the film progresses that she is in fact the dominant person in the relationship, and the only one that Reynolds cannot bully, and who can tell him to shut up in a way that he will actually listen to. Manville, too, has been nominated for an Academy Award for her skillfully underplayed portrayal of the power behind the throne.

Strangely, the actor who in many ways dominates the movie (but whom the Academy did not see fit to nominate) is Luxembourgian actress Vicky Krieps (The Colony, Hanna) who plays Alma, Reynolds’ new romantic interest, model and muse, and without whom, seriously, nothing in this movie would happen. Reynolds meets her in another breakfast scene: After he has left the mansion that doubles as his studio for one of the few times in the film, he stops at a seaside resort where Alma is the shy, rustic waitress who is fascinated and charmed by the (significantly) older man’s flirtatious breakfast order, which consists of tea, bacon, scones, Welsh rarebit, butter, jam, and oh yeah, a few sausages as an afterthought. Before long Alma has become his muse and model and new live-in lover.

Cyril assumes at first that Alma will be just like all the rest: a temporary port in the storm of Reynolds’ egomania. But he surprises her, and everyone else, when he in fact finally decides to marry the new girl. But Reynolds’ relationship with her is basic narcissist behavior: He showers her with apparently loving attention in the beginning of the relationship, only to withdraw that approval and consistently find fault with her tastes, her looks, her cooking, her behavior and everything else once he essentially has her in his clutches.

The twist in the film comes when we realize that Alma is not the naïve innocent she has appeared to be, and as events take a surprising turn or two, the mansion turns into a psychological battleground of sado-masochism that we didn’t really see coming.

The film had opened with a close-up of Alma, discussing her relationship with Reynolds. We think she’s talking directly to us at first, until the camera pans back and reveals a man who has, presumably, been questioning her. It is not until much later that se realize the man is a doctor. What she is saying to him, and us, is that Reynolds has made her dreams come true, and, she claims, “I’ve given him what he desires.” It’s not until he end of the film that we realize in full exactly what this means.

Despite skilled performances by all three principles, the lush costumes and moving score, this really doesn’t add up to a great film. For my own taste, I didn’t even find it a very good film. It wasn’t just that I found the film soporific, or that there’s virtually no plot as I’ve already mentioned, or that I didn’t find the characters at all likeable (though I didn’t). It’s also that I didn’t find anything in the film that explained why the characters were the way they were. There is a strange obsession that Reynolds has with his dead mother, which may explain his devotion to his sister and his desire perhaps for a dominating mother figure. This might explain his childishness, but not so much his cruel narcissism. As for Alma, she is a complete cypher. How did this young woman with the Luxembourgian accent find her way to rural Britain in the 1950s? What is it she wants out of this relationship? We know absolutely nothing about her background or her motivations. Perhaps this is deliberate, to make her turn in the end more of a surprise, but it certainly doesn’t make her more sympathetic.

I’m going to give this one two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson. You might like it if you’re not too much into plot, character, or pace. I wasn’t so keen.

 

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