Friday, January 19, 2018

Phantom Thread: A clumsily stitched melodrama

Phantom Thread (2017) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for profanity and brief nudity

By Derrick Bang

I simply cannot fathom the waves of critical adulation lapping onto the shores of this dramatic snooze of a film.

Having decided that Alma (Vicky Krieps) is to become his new lover and muse, celebrated
fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) naturally insists on creating a
dress for her.
Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson may have framed every scene with the care and precision that Reynolds Woodcock employs while making his haute couture dresses and gowns, but the story and characters remain unpalatable, the pacing lethargic, and the result about as appealing as waiting for paint to dry.

In short — although the viewing experience seems to last forever — Phantom Thread is a crushing bore.

Anderson’s films are always challenging at best; they range from weirdly captivating (Inherent Vice, Boogie Nights), to distastefully bizarre (There Will Be Blood, Magnolia), to utterly unwatchable (The Master). His characters invariably are grotesque burlesques: parodies of actual people, exaggerated to make a peculiar narrative point that rarely has anything to do with the actual human condition.

Based on his artistic output, Anderson feels like a misanthrope.

Phantom Thread is no different. Despite the luxurious world in which these people inhabit, laced with beautiful things, their souls are ugly and cruel. They deserve each other ... which I suspect is Anderson’s ultimate point, but hardly an epiphany on which to hang a 130-minute movie.

The setting is post-WWII London in the 1950s, at the House of Woodcock, where the imperious Reynolds (Daniel Day-Lewis) lives and designs at the center of British fashion: lavishly expensive creations coveted by royalty, movie stars, heiresses, socialites, debutants and their ilk. The firm’s mostly silent staff caters to every caprice and demand of their fussy, fastidious and anal-retentive lord and master; the stiffly condescending Reynolds expects no less.

Business matters and other “unpleasant details” are handled by his starch-collared sister Cyril (Lesley Manville); such details include hustling each of his casual lovers out the door, once he tires of their companionship ... which, we gather, is a frequent occurrence. Each, during her short stay, supplies a smidgen of inspiration drawn from personality and physique; each departs having been transformed, to a degree, into a “better” version of herself.

Reynolds also is an unrepentant sexist pig: a coldly calculating martinet who doesn’t even seem to like his most loyal and devoted clients. The dynamic feels like an uncomfortable gothic mash-up of Pygmalion and Rebecca, with Manville’s Cyril standing in as the chilly, omnipresent Mrs. Danvers.


The story begins as Reynolds’ most recent lover exits with a chagrined pout, leaving him mildly vexed and seeking a fresh face. His interest is piqued under unusual circumstances: His gaze locks with the eyes of a café waitress of Eastern European descent: Alma (Vicky Krieps), whose movements become self-consciously flustered under his stare ... and yet she silently gives as good as she gets.

It’s a delectable meet-cute scene, laden with flirty potential and an undercurrent of something less savory. I wish the rest of Anderson’s film could be this subtly engaging.

He asks her out; she accepts and — with scarcely a pause for breath — he begs the indulgence of designing a dress for her. This lengthy, late-night scene radiates a similarly incandescent glow of erotic tension. Anderson — who also handles cinematography — lingers over the entire process of measuring, draping and pinning, the sequence getting even more sensual tension from the candle-like lighting.

Alma moves into the multi-story House of Woodcock; their affair begins that quickly. Given the waspish control Cyril exerts over everything, the resulting dynamic becomes a toxic romantic triangle.

Alma doesn’t fit this highbrow environment. She has the earthy, stocky presence of a country upbringing; she looks and feels clumsy amid Reynolds’ delicate creations and aristocratic clients. Alma also lacks the upper-class, woman-in-her-place compliance that likely prompted his previous lovers to fawn over his slightest whim. Cyril’s compressed lips twitch over Alma’s various uninformed transgressions, most resulting from Reynolds’ eye-rollingly picayune demands.

Breakfast always is a “silent time,” devoid of conversation, as Reynolds contemplates the challenges of his upcoming day. Much the way Alfred Hitchcock suspensefully dialed up the volume of key sounds in his early talkies — notably in 1929’s Blackmail — Anderson turns Alma’s pouring of tea, and preparation of toast, into a screeching affront to Reynolds’ ludicrously delicate sensibilities.

(I couldn’t help recalling a classic Peanuts Sunday strip — May 28, 1961 — when Linus, responding to his tantrum-throwing older sister, retreats to the kitchen to prepare a sandwich; when Lucy approaches, he archly asks, “Am I buttering too loud for you?”)

Lacking the culture and refinement of Reynolds’ previous lovers, Alma is less willing to meekly tolerate his outbursts; she challenges him. When that doesn’t deliver positive results, she petulantly — and grimly — takes a different tack.

At which point, their relationship becomes ... awkward. And unhealthy.

Anderson bookends and occasionally interrupts such increasingly unsavory proceedings with tight close-ups of Alma, narrating these events to somebody initially unseen. This adds nothing to an already tedious plotline, even when her mostly silent listener’s identity eventually is revealed. By that point, the experience has devolved into ho-hum tedium.

Perhaps more aggravating, given Anderson’s focus on snaps, pins, fasteners and bolts of luxuriously expensive material, we get no sense of Reynolds’ creative process: the point at which scribbles on a page are transformed into an actual gown. The alluring results simply appear in a given scene, courtesy of costume designer Mark Bridges, as they’re carefully draped on an appreciative princess (Lujza Richter), countess (Gina McKee) or society lady (Julia Davis).

Their delight and gratitude slide off Reynolds like water off a duck’s back; he responds with little more than a stiff smile and slight nod.

The anticipated arrival of one client prompts visible hostility: the quite wealthy but alcoholic and boorishly vulgar Barbara Rose (Harriet Sansom Harris, touchingly socially inept). Reynolds peevishly confesses to his sister that he’d rather not design a dress for Barbara’s upcoming marriage to a high-society rake; Cyril archly reminds him that this woman’s money helps maintain the house in which he lives and works.

Alma’s eventual treatment of Barbara, as a guest at the aforementioned wedding, is our first indication that the House of Woodcock may have gained a third coldly calculating Borgia.

Day-Lewis’ performance certainly cannot be faulted; he inhabits Reynolds with a meticulous totality that’s both stunning and unsettling. Day-Lewis oozes silent contempt and stuffy arrogance, his every movement laced with aristocratic disdain. Reynolds doesn’t talk much, and Day-Lewis puts smarmy derision into every syllable of his brief sentences. He always sounds like a puffed-up parent correcting a misbehaving child.

Manville’s Cyril is appropriately sinister, her similarly arch comments laced with an undertone of ferocity; there’s no doubt, push come to shove, who actually rules the House of Woodcock. Cyril is not to be messed with.

Anderson gets just the right tone from Krieps, a Luxembourg actress not known on these shores. At first blush, there’s a sense that Alma isn’t yet finished, despite being an adult. Her initially willingness to submit to Reynolds’ impulses feels unwholesome, as if she’s surrendering too much, too quickly. Watching Krieps transform into — well, something else — is far more intriguing than the storyline in which she finds herself.

And that’s the major problem with Phantom Thread. Despite Anderson’s obvious effort to mimic the bodice-ripping, gothic anxiety favored by (for example) the Bronte sisters, he doesn’t get anywhere near that level of intensity. This overcooked and quite tedious nonsense is akin to late summer’s Mother!: not that tasteless, to be sure, but just as self-indulgently dull.

2 comments:

  1. So disappointing. I was looking forward to this movie; not now

    ReplyDelete
  2. I think it's worth seeing for DDL's performance. (Hard to imagine him winning an Oscar with Gary Oldman in the race, though.) I thought it was surprisingly long and drawn out... but liked a lot of it. Parts were just gorgeous. I had nervous anxiety through most of it.

    ReplyDelete