Film: Pleasure and wonderment

Written By: Patrick Mulcahy
Published: February 4, 2018 Last modified: February 5, 2018

Phantom Thread

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson


Nineteenth century romantic fiction is full of men who are difficult to love, from Mr Darcy in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to Mr Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Buttoned-down, gruff but matter of fact, they have their issues resolved by the love of a good woman. This narrative has persisted in 21st ventury cinema, but can go in at least two ways: the erotic melodrama of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, in which the dominating fantasies of the male lead are indulged by a submissive but strong-willed woman determined to appeal to his emotions; or the psychodrama of Phantom Thread, the latest film from There Will Be Blood writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson.

The cinematic appeal of the Fifty Shades films is negligible, offering a mixture of property porn – see how well the rich and sado-masochistic live – and actual porn, offset by the tastefulness of the director. The first film bordered on the unintentionally hilarious, a whisper away from knowing camp, of a kind that makes you shout: “Don’t do that, young lady  ooh that’s nasty!” Though you stop when the viewer in front looking at their mobile phone thinks you are talking about them. The appeal of Phantom Thread is more refined: great acting, giddy pacing, near continuous piano music by Jonny Greenwood throughout – the real “phantom thread’ of the title. Enraptured by it from beginning to end, I was reminded of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s total cinema – the complete fusion of movement, editing and music. Anderson is at his compositional best here, producing a British-set film that is unlike any made in this country in the last 40 years, since Joseph Losey, John Schlesinger and Ken Russell shook up our national mise en scene.

The drama is metaphorical. Its protagonist with the absurd name of Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis) is a British fashion designer working in the 1960s, who lives with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) – his “old so-and-so” (or indeed “sew-and-sew”) – and is selectively attentive. He might be in the act of getting to know a woman, but switches off when his sister appears. Reynolds is scarred by the death of his mother, who taught him his craft. Somewhat creepily, he wears a lock of her hair sewn into the breast of his suit; you wonder at what point did he clip it, or was it freely offered? Reynolds works at breakfast and has invited a woman, Johanna (Camilla Rutherford) to live with him but no longer pays her any regard. When she tries to gain his attention, he dismisses any attempt at a confrontation; it simply isn’t part of his daily routine. She eventually leaves him. Reynolds believes that the institution of marriage is tainted, so much so that he secretes messages in the wedding dresses he designs – “never cursed” – to save his clients. The attention he lavishes on them is part of the thrill of a dress from the House of Woodcock. A smile from him is a sensory pleasure.

Reynolds doesn’t look for another woman to live with him, but finds one in the form of Alma (Vicky Krieps), a German born waitress working in a northern cafe. Having challenged her to remember his order – he takes her notes as a memento of their first encounter, as if her handwriting was evidence of a sensitivity that he wants to possess – he invites her to dinner and then to his country studio where she models for him. When Cyril appears, Reynolds’ attention shifts to her shape, asking his sister to record a series of measurements – numbers in an order that only Reynolds and his sister understand. Alma moves from being overwhelmed to utter bewilderment, and then being shown to her room.  One remark attests to Reynolds’ peculiar power: “You have no breasts, unless I choose to give them to you”. Was ist los, indeed!

Anderson is at his best when his focus is narrow, dealing with the psychosis of driven men. His characters are “man-children’ in a form of arrested emotional development, seeking validation but never quite achieving it. He works towards the “anti-resolution’; the problem isn’t solved but the protagonist reaches a new realisation or pushes his psychosis in a particular way. You wonder: “how much of this psychosis is part of the director’s own make-up?’

As Alma attempts to find her place in the House of Woodcock, you are drawn into a relationship that is a form of contest. The resolution is both surprising and natural; the voiceover tells you who is really in control.

In a film full of emotional tremors, there is real pleasure in seeing Alma and Reynolds rescue a dress from a client who disrespects it; it is the first time that the couple bond. You haven’t seen a scene quite like it, except when you view it as a metaphor. It is like a director taking their film away from a distributor who has marketed it badly.

Day Lewis gives a typically immersive performance. In one moment you are reminded how his “method’ led to real-life madness – seeing “a ghost’ of his own late father on stage during a performance of Hamlet. This trauma is re-enacted explicitly. You shudder that he would seek to re-visit it, yet completely understand why he wants to withdraw from acting altogether. Day Lewis wants to put his ghosts to bed, to retire from traumatic imaginings, as if acting were not the representation of disturbing behaviour but the creation of an emotional memory that does not bear recollection. The levels of pleasure and wonderment of Phantom Thread – and I haven’t mentioned the imperious performances from Manville and Krieps – make for a compelling and rare form of cinema, that renders obsolete and amateurish other directors’ endeavours in the field.

About Patrick Mulcahy

Patrick Mulcahy is a film critic for Tribune and Chartist, to which he has contributed for over twenty years.