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Oscar Quest 2018: “Phantom Thread”

Phantom Thread!

“Why, hello, viewer. Join me for breakfast and ambiguity, won’t you.”

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

This time of year is my annual Oscar Quest, during which I venture out to see all Academy Award nominees for Best Picture, regardless of whether I think I’ll like them or not, whether their politics and beliefs agree with mine or not, whether they’re good or bad for me, and whether or not my friends and family have ever heard of them. I’ve seen every Best Picture nominee from 1997 to the present. As of February 21st I’ve officially seen all nine of this year’s Best Picture nominees. I’m not sure I’ll be able to cover the others in full before the Oscars telecast on March 4th, but let’s see how far I can get before I burn out.

Onward to nominee #7: writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, reportedly the acting farewell of Daniel Day-Lewis, the closest that men have to an answer to Meryl Streep. I’ve only seen one other PTA film, the stunning There Will Be Blood, in which he guided Day-Lewis through brutally yet artfully steamrolling any and all other actors in his path. In their latest team-up he plays another smug period-piece professional with deplorable ideas about how to be the best there is at what he does, but this time winning the movie through sheer force of will wasn’t quite so simple.

Short version for the unfamiliar: Day-Lewis is Reynolds Woodcock, an esteemed British fashion designer dedicated to bedecking the 1950s upper class in the finest raiments and Oscar technical awards possible. Meanwhile behind the scenes, he’s a passive-aggressive control freak who’s never maintained a long-term relationship because women don’t respond well to his obsessive routines or the way that his passions for anything and anyone beyond his craft inevitably fizzle. He has so little patience for the Game of Love that he never has to break up with them — he merely goes about his business until they realize they’re no longer wanted and excuse themselves from his self-absorbed presence.

Enter the next woman in his life, a waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps) who pleases him so greatly at a singular vacation breakfast that it’s not long before he’s inviting her to long walks, social outings, dinners where she’s sitting instead of serving, and hastily moving into his designated woman-of-the-week spare bedroom. She graduates to de facto assistant in his business and lives happily ever after for as long as she does precisely everything he expects.

Ten minutes later, Reynolds’ bad-relationship cycle moves onward from infatuation to intimidation, soon to reach his final stage of intransigent indifference. But Alma will not have it. After investing so deeply in his life and business as both assistant and admirer, she’s determined to knock him out of his fixed orbit. Can she truly change him? Or will she just have to kill him?

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Meanwhile around their perimeter, accomplished stage actress Lesley Manville is Reynolds’ sister Cyril, who manages his business, keeps his schedule, oversees his seamstresses, and coaches his love interests through every phase from Come Right In to You Should Go Now. She knows her brother’s peccadilloes and his egregious sins, and works with or around him as befits the company. She’s second-in-command but does not take his crap — giving as good as she gets (or better) in any attempted arguments, dueling with words as well as with the kind of array of perfectly modulated expressions that one simply must develop to survive upper-crust British cinema.

Brian Gleeson, brother of the ubiquitous Domhnall, is the town doctor who lends Alma a sympathetic ear at times. Silas Carson, best known in my circles as Conehead Jedi Ki-Adi-Mundi from the Star Wars prequels, has one scene as a businessman with a surprise past. Caron’s bride-to-be is Harriet Sansom Harris. a.k.a. Dr. Frasier Crane’s greedy, two-faced agent Bebe from TV’s Frasier. She has a delightful if too brief moment as a paying customer who, in the film’s funniest sequence, shames herself in public while wearing one of Reynolds’ dresses, spurring Alma to invoke drastic measures to reclaim the merchandise for the sake of their brand.

Phantom Thread!

Alma (Vicky Grieps) models one of Mr. Woodcock’s show-stopping creations. In 1950s money it was probably around $50.

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Seventy percent of the film’s pleasure is in how everything in upscale period-piece London is exquisite from head to toe, from floor to ceiling, from basement to rooftop. It’s the milieu Anderson was born to luxuriate inside with his ably abetting crew. It’s been a while since we had a British costume drama composed of One Perfect Shot material from start to finish.

Beyond appearances, I previously summed up the core of the film thusly on Twitter:

…facile, but you get the idea. It’s all about the tug-of-war between the manly male preening from his pedestal and the woman who loves him but draws the line at playing docile doormat. Theirs, however, is not a conflict of constant shouting matches and crying jags. Those have their place but solve little. After much deliberation Alma concludes that the best way to penetrate his fastidious facade is to wreck his complacency. Her mad idea at surface level seems a basic, time-honored revenge scheme. But the unexpected consequences, of the sort that could only work within a collaboration between Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Thomas Anderson, send their relationship in a new direction and set the stage for quite a unique climax.

All told, it’s technically about toxic masculinity (the catchphrase headlining all other reviews of this film to infinity) assaulted by assertive feminism, but approached from such a bizarre angle that I’m not sure either side ultimately “wins” the face-off. Phantom Thread is neither that kind of one-sided polemic nor that wacky a rom-com.

Other possible Morals of the Story:

* We all have sides we keep out of sight, revealed only to those willing to be close enough to unravel us
* Clothing is less than skin deep, but we do invest an awful lot in how it looks and what it means
* Pretty suits and dresses can’t hide everything
* Men in general are like just all UGGGHHH AMIRITE
* Machismo, like mischief, can be managed
* Back in the day, small-town English diners didn’t mind if you ordered six different items for breakfast

Nitpicking? A movie about fashion was not immediately appealing to me, a guy who’s spent many a resigned dollar on the big-‘n’-tall end of Walmart racks. With my tastes as peculiar as they are (I mean, I do have some), I wasn’t quick to grant the film’s assumption that every one of Reynolds’ dresses was magnificent on principle. Some looked like typical Oscar ceremonial garb to me, some a bit too monochromatic to blow me away. But that’s just me.

The final lovers’ duel is so off-the-wall that I had to go home and look up whether or not I’d correctly understood what had just happened. Even after confirming that, yes, that is what happened, I then had to spend the next two weeks trying to figure out whether or not I actually liked the film as a whole in light of that.

So what’s to like? Eventually I got there. Anderson’s style keeps the viewer at an emotional remove at times, but once we accept his invitation to creep in more closely, the viewer can’t stop their head from spinning, eying all the lovely surroundings while trying to absorb the narrative and discern what lies beneath. Day-Lewis is once again an impeccably unreliable paragon, but the screen is not his alone to rule. As girlfriend and sister, Krieps and Manville hold their own, even overpower him at times, whether as solo opponents or as a tag team. They’re not friends at first sight, but Alma and Cyril agree on one thing: Reynolds Woodcock is a talented man worth saving at the core, if only you can develop the fortitude to put him down in his proper place.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Phantom Thread end credits, but classier viewers can compose a high-end after-viewing shopping list of the numerous British clothiers who contributed to the revival of this era.

At the very end of the credits comes one last message, the dedication: “FOR JONATHAN DEMME.”

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