Words: Mike Hibbert
Phantom Thread, the latest collaboration between contemporary auteur Paul Thomas Anderson, and notoriously method leading man Daniel Day-Lewis, is a sumptuously indulgent audio-visual banquet. Upon first viewing, it feels like peering into an old music box and dancing along with its inhabitant, who delights in dancing with you until the box inevitably slams shut. In the voyeuristic fashion of Hitchcock et al, Anderson, taking on DP duties as well as directing, provides a window into the life and mind of a character who stares right back at you with relish or, alternatively, avoids your gaze with belligerent contempt. A trademark idiosyncratic performance from Day-Lewis brings Reynolds Woodcock and his House to life and he, in the vein of Daniel Plainview (There Will Be Blood), makes you believe that the world might just revolve around him.
In a post-Weinstein landscape, the tale of an ageing eccentric efficiently negging a perpetual stream of young assistants until he tires of them, for his sister to subsequently send them packing is as exasperating as it sounds. However, for Reynolds Woodcock, the dressmaker extraordinaire’s charm and attraction are undeniable. Abusive relationships are not so black and white; in fact, they are an ambiguous rainbow of assorted fabrics. Woodcock is insatiable: he intensely enjoys late night joyrides down empty country lanes, gorges himself on interminable breakfast orders and sews ‘phantom threads’ into the dresses of the rich and famous for the sheer intrusive satisfaction of being the only one to know that they are there. Phantom Thread questions the, up until very recently, unquestioned authority of the rich, white man and explores the means and effects of saying no to somebody who has never been told no.
A music box will always wind down, although, one can always restart it. This is the nature of Reynolds’ work and his relationships. The exhaustive passion of a true artist requires a down period to wind back up after such an expenditure of energy; this is the Woodcock way, anyway. One must waltz up and down in all of life’s endeavours with all the sporadic enthusiasm of a manic depressive. Whether or not this is a true vision or the cliched aspirations of a dress-designer who deems any alternative too boring is all part of the enigma that is the Reynolds Woodcock ensemble. Such theatrics stem from his odd oedipal longing for his deceased mother.
Reynolds takes great comfort in the omnipresence of her spirit, seemingly showcasing his performance for her audience of one; the poor souls who cross his path are just bit-players in his one-man show. Such a performance is inevitably unsustainable. Alma (Vicky Krieps), Reynolds’ ultimate concubine, as most real girlfriends do, sees through his theatrics and falls for the vulnerable, spoilt little boy within. Tending to him in sickness and enduring him at his most pretentious and backhanded, she becomes the mother that he longs for; the mother that his sister can never be, no matter how hard she tries. As Reynolds’ handler and superego, his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) completes the undercurrent of creepy coursing through the walls of the House of Reynolds by actively enabling his behaviour.
Alma, of unspecified European heritage, brings a previously unheard voice and a much needed perspective to The House, and the ensuing friction is delightful. With each of Reynolds’ attempts to chastise her, be it a scolding for spreading butter too loudly on toast, “it’s like you just rode a horse across the room!”, or him commending his own “gallantry” for eating her sub-par asparagus, Alma’s unashamed, simmering defiance is inspiring. Krieps entirely holds her own across from Day-Lewis, a dynamic entirely integral to their diegetic relationship. Their bipolar romance seems to hit a crescendo of bitterness when a twist that makes all the sense in the world imbrues their cyclical love with the fuel it needs to continue.
The period-drama is a genre that oozes lavish nimiety in terms of costume and mise-en- scène, however, the world of post-war fashion offers an unforgettable feast of excess found in meals, costumes, language and character. There is something about Phantom Thread that is worryingly titillating, the type of excitement garnered only through the admiration of something or someone truly awful. The film is a masterclass in putdowns, sharp as needles, grounding fleeting romantic notions of muses and love-at-first-sight in the longitude of harsh reality and forcing its characters to face up to their rash decisions and the consequences of their lifestyles.
The film’s score, composed by frequent Anderson collaborator Jonny Greenwood, is as delectable as any of the films visual feasts which range from elaborate meals and dresses, to perfectly framed characters. Strings and piano that, at times, would be at home in a horror film weave their way through the film with the delicacy and strength of fine stitching, tightening the piece which has a relatively short runtime of around two hours, giving it the emphatic abruptness of a Reynolds Woodcock retort or the oppressive claustrophobia of a haute couture bodice.
The House of Woodcock is a house of death but its residents are very much alive. Indulgent, selfish and totally dependent on one another, Reynolds, Alma and Cyril will haunt its halls and haunt my mind for a very long time to come. An absolute masterpiece.