Phantom Thread (2017)

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

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There was a debate in my little beat up Mazda 3 on the way home from Phantom Thread.  I saw it with two of my friends who didn’t much care for the film, and I found myself defending a film I’m not even sure I liked.  This being a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, you expect a certain quality, and because of his strength as a director you imagine that he’s in control of his message.  He’s saying what he wants to say, and he says it well, but do you agree with what he says?

On reddit some months ago I read an interesting discussion about whether the quality of a movie depended on its message.  Can you consider a movie great while disagreeing with the what the director is trying to say?  This discussion was centered around Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, an Oscar-winning movie considered to be a classic, famous in particular for Marlon Brando’s “I coulda been somebody” speech which was referenced at the end of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull which itself was reference at the end of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights.

So, On the Waterfront is considered a great movie, but it’s also pretty openly a statement by Kazan defending his decision to turn over colleagues and suspected communists to the House Un-American Activities Committee.  When Kazan would win an honorary Oscar decades later, many in attendance refused to applaud or even stand because of what he had done.

Phantom Thread doesn’t have this kind of backstory.  If anything it’s just a well-made movie by a director considered one of the best currently alive and an actor similarly at the top of his game.  It’s an intimate story about a disturbed romance set mostly in a small English home.  If this weren’t a Paul Thomas Anderson or Daniel Day-Lewis film, it would just be an interesting, somewhat thrilling even if monotonous story with a distinct point of view.  But this being a movie with those kinds of names behind it, it’s given a weight it might not deserve or even ask for.

As my friend said, does PTA understand the message he’s putting forth?  This is a story about an older, white, controlling misogynist who takes advantage of the women around him and gets away with it.  It’s of it’s time, in a sense, even though it’s a period piece.  But do we need another story like this?  Is Phantom Thread adding to the conversation?

I really have no idea.  This is a movie almost as oblique and abstract as the director’s last, 2015’s Inherent Vice.  In this case the story is easy to follow, but the characters’ frames of mind, their driving forces are hard to detect.  We think we know them at the start, and by the end they become more mysterious.

Phantom Thread is a love story between Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Alma (Vicky Krieps).  It’s disturbing, occasionally hard to watch, and the love is more about power than affection, but the sentiment remains.  The recurring piano theme is almost whimsical and sometimes grand.  The movie doesn’t hide the concerning behavior of its main characters, but it acclimates us to it and to them.

Woodcock is a well-known tailor, but the story is unconcerned with his profession beyond the aesthetic beauty of it.  All that matters is his sense of power and control.  His profession is secondary, he could be a wall street broker or a movie director.

And that’s where you can find more than a few comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock, both the figure himself as well as his films.  There are images reminiscent of PsychoRear Window and Vertigo as well as Woodcock playing the role of a controlling director much like Hitchcock himself.  Hitchcock’s longtime wife and collaborator was even named Alma.

Through Phantom Thread we watch as Woodcock controls and intimidates Alma until she starts to push back a little, showing a dark, obsessive side that matches his own.  This all builds to a point at which they both acknowledge that they need each other.  It’s slightly absurd and deeply disturbing, ending with the tailor willingly eating poisonous mushrooms, knowing that it will make him sick and allowing his wife to nurture him, a role she seeks out.

It’s not hard to see why an audience might have a problem with these gender roles, but the movie depicts Reynolds and Woodcock as uniquely distorted.  Reynolds doesn’t represent man and Alma doesn’t represent woman, at least not as I saw it.  They’re both power hungry, and they settle for a strange, hard to watch reciprocal relationship that makes the other both submissive and domineering.  In the end, they both suffer alternately in order to feel the power they so crave.

So, putting the nature of the story aside, the film is incredibly well-made, as it should be.  The cinematography and score by frequent musical collaborator Jonny Greenwood is mesmerizing.  It’s not only impressive on its own, but it both subverts and makes grand the story we’re watching.  Phantom Thread would not be read the same way without the music.  At times it clues us in to the horror-esque nature of Woodcock’s relationship to women, and at other times it finds a whimsical fancy amongst their courtship.  Are we supposed to cringe or embrace this strange, strange relationship?  Well I guess it’s up to you.

Up Next: Seven Psychopaths (2012), Up (2009), Marnie (1964)

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