09 February 2018

First Impressions: Phantom Thread

Ah the first movie I've seen in theaters in the year 2018. In any world I would not be interested in Phantom Thread (2017). I generally don't go in for heady fashion dramas or non-pornographic adult-oriented films. The existence, however, of Daniel Day-Lewis' purported final film role, plus anything new by Paul Thomas Anderson is pretty enticing.

This is a weird movie. I generally liked it, but it's all kinds of bonkers. SPOILERS forever, so turn away, mortals. While this is undeniably a PTA film, made more apparent by the fact that he handled his own cinematography, the concept seemed drastically far from anything he's ever done. For one, it wasn't set in the United States. It also foregoes the sprawling cast and epic story in favor of remarkably efficient storytelling. He's done this before in Punch-Drunk Love (2002) and had a somewhat limited cast in There Will Be Blood (2007) and The Master (2012), but those were both long, epic character studies that took place over lifetimes or in the case of the latter, an undisclosed period of months. Phantom Thread sort of has that, but is laser-focused.

Will brylcreem to spare
All of this had me wondering what the hell attracted these two titans together again. It's not like they're Scorsese and DeNiro or Scorsese and DiCaprio cranking out a new film every year. Both DDL and PTA are on the movie production installment plan and new works from either are rare. PTA has actually done decent recently, having made films in 2017, 2014, and 2012, but had two five-year gaps before that. DDL has only made eight movies since PTA began his feature film career. He was nominated for an Academy Award for four of them and has won two (his other win being My Left Foot [1989]). These dudes are selective. So why did Phantom Thread appeal to them?

Apparently, DDL had a lot to do with his character's development. You've got to think that after he's made a career out of playing great 19th-Century overtly masculine characters, part of why he was so enticed with Reynolds Woodcock is precisely because he's a mid-20th Century fop. It's such a different role than what he earned his three statues for, but he's also a really intriguing character, with levels of insecurity layered upon contrasting confident and controlling veneers.

While Woodcock is ostensibly the main character, Lesley Manville's Cyril and Vicky Krieps' Alma hold their own in the constantly shifting and conflicting power dynamics. It's notable that these two ladies dropped into the impressive pedigree of DDL-PTA and hold their own on the acting side, if not outright outshine the three-time Oscar winner.

That's all part of the film itself, too. Woodcock seems like a giant within the film - wielding unstoppable power over his House and expressing finicky fussiness over every aspect of his life. The film dives into the whims and routines of the mostly self-tortured genius and the balance between being a beautiful artist and a personal asshole. Alma tries to go along at first, enamored by her new role, but quickly isn't having this nonsense, and begins to disrupt the carefully established order.

These shifts in relationship dynamics are subtle at first, but then have a big shift in the form of some poisoned mushrooms. Alma wrecks Woodcock through some bad yellow mushrooms, and oddly enough, it seems as though they both treat each other better from it. It's as if Woodcock actually gets off by being treated like a little baby and cared for, as if Alma is his long-dead mother, whose ghost visits him in a hallucinatory fever dream. See where this movie starts to diverge from other stuffy period dramas? Alma gets into this, too - seeking to become an equal to Woodcock rather than just another disposable muse.

Throw sister Cyril into this, who at times shows that she will indulge most of Reynolds' idiosyncrasies but puts her foot down and demonstrates how much power she really has whenever she needs to. She seeks order amidst Reynolds' at times bizarre and specific demands, but is also balanced enough to let Alma push him when he needs to be pushed, although not without some convincing. It's all a fascinating work of three characters jostling for their own social standing with their specific circle, and in that way, is also totally PTA.

Let's get back to that poisoning, though. I really had to sort through that last scene where Woodcock is totally into it. It's like this battle of wills or a big game of poison mushroom chicken. Reynolds seems to get off on both Alma besting him and turning him into a big pukey baby. That's the only rationale I could come up with, because with a man so particular about his asparagus, it seemed drastically out of character that he'd be so into his routine being wrecked (plus the chaos the first poisoning caused - almost causing a stumbly Woodcock to ruin the German Princess' dress). I'd be eager to hear other interpretations.

Lastly, amidst all this heady fashion drama and intricate personal battles over relationship control, this film also somehow finds way to be extremely funny, in really wry and subtle ways. The preposterousness of Woodcock's particular habits contrasting with Alma's ever increasing boundary-pushing prove to be pretty damn funny. It's dark in a personal, edgy way, although not straight black comedy. There's not much else like it out there, and this is undoubtedly DDL's funniest role.

In the end, this is an enjoyable flick, but I do think that both PTA and DDL have done better. That's a ridiculously high standard, though, and to dig into every nuance of this film would reveal layers and layers higher than most anything any other director-actor pair can achieve.

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