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Non-Review Review: Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread is certainly a beautiful film.

In many ways it resembles the dresses designed by the artist at its centre. It is elegant, well-composed, stylish. It looks perfect and has just the right texture. Phantom Thread is a meticulously-produced piece of work, with every technical aspect of the film delivered to the highest possible standard. More than that, Phantom Thread is a very clever and incisive film, one that arguably feels much more suited to this particular cultural moment than Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Tailored to the role.

However, Phantom Thread feels like one of Reynolds Woodcock’s dresses in another manner. As fantastic as it might look, it is not designed for living. There is one memorable sequence in the middle of the film where Woodcock actually confiscates the dress from a patron because it is not being treated with the pomp and ceremony that he expects. These are dresses for display, designed to leave observers breathless. It never ignites the same passion as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, never feeling as anchored in appreciable human emotion.

Phantom Thread often feels too much like strolling through Woodcock’s parlour, the audience invited to examine the sheer craft and cleverness of what is being done, but warned in the starkest possible terms not to touch anything. There is beauty, but no feeling.

Make it sew.

Phantom Thread is a fascinating study of the male ego, particularly the cliché of the dependent and childish artistic genius. “I make women’s dresses,” Woodcock explains early in the film, but there’s never a sense that he thinks of himself in such menial terms. Woodcock is an artist, a creative visionary who creates works that are almost divine in their splendour. Woodcock holds private showings and very select auctions, while designing  lifetimes’ worth of fashion for princesses and other prominent figures.

However, Phantom Thread makes it very clear that Woodcock is not just a creative genius. He is a tortured genius. He is a man who pours so much of himself into his work that he cannot function as a normal human being, having never bothered to hone the small courtesies of social interaction like white lies or small talk. The opening montage suggests that this is ultimately a persona, the camera detailing how Woodcock carefully costumes himself each and every morning. He shows up to breakfast looking half-dressed, but there’s no doubt that it may as well be ritual attire.

It’ll have you in stitches.

Nobody disputes the genius of Reynolds Woodcock, and so they tolerate his eccentricities. Woodcock is such a demanding creative that he seems incapable of fending for himself on any real level. He repeatedly stresses the importance of breakfast, and how little time he has for disruptions such as basic human interactions or the sounds of other people eating. His helpers and enablers make excuses. After all, if Woodcock does not have the perfect breakfast experience, then how can he be expected to suck it up and cope like any normal person? He is not a normal person.

As such, Woodcock sucks women into his orbit, people intended to deal with his emotional baggage. His sister Cyril seems to manage the day-to-day operations, like the house staff and the finances. Woodcock drafts in women to handle his emotional needs, with Phantom Thread suggesting that this is a familiar pattern of behaviour; Woodcock draws these women in, is inspired by them, and then casts them out when he is bored. Woodcock cannot even manage that small emotional labour himself, delegating it to Cyril.

“I’m rehearsing my ‘losing to Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour‘ face.”

Woodcock is a man who craves control. When he notes that one model does not have significant breasts, he assures her that it is quite alright. “It is my job to give them to you,” he assures her. He pauses, before adding, “If I choose to.” Woodcock tolerates banter, but only when he is in control. “Stop,” he solemnly instructs his latest lover after one back-and-forth, signalling that he is to have the final word on the matter. Even as Cyril tends to him while lying in bed, he demands, “Silence.” Woodcock is very much invested in his own authority and control.

There is something surprisingly timely in this, in the era in which popular culture seems to be confronting the reality of dealing with such pampered male artists – of the indulgences that these creative visions take with the people around them, the burdens that they weigh upon those they work with. Pop culture has often fetishised the idea of the troubled and socially dysfunctional male artist, indulging the ego of those who push beyond social norms in the pursuit of their artistic vision. The past few months have invited the audience to consider the cost.

Don’t go off half-Woodcocked.

Phantom Thread is wryly aware of all this, and even seems to play with the audience’s expectations and understands. Central to this is perhaps the casting of Daniel Day Lewis, a performer who has cultivated such a reputation as a difficult performer – whether staying in character during production or refusing to help promote his movies. There is even a point in Phantom Thread that feels like a very knowing and self-aware reference to perhaps the most Daniel Day Lewis of stories about the artist; the time that he conjured up the ghost of his father while starring in Hamlet.

Woodcock is in some ways a deconstruction of this archetype, an examination of the way in which people (and especially women) are socially conditioned to tolerate and pander to the whims of the tortured male genius. Phantom Thread offers a surprisingly sympathetic exploration of this dynamic, particularly in the back and forth between Woodcock and his latest love interest, Alma. When Alma reflects that her romance with Woodcock comes at a high price, her interlocutor asks what that price is. She responds, “I give him all of me.”

Cliffnotes romance.

Phantom Thread is undoubtedly a kinky movie, layered with roleplay and bondage themes, but it is also surprisingly chaste in a literal sense. Woodcock seldom seems particularly passionate about Alma, despite his obvious need of her. The kiss passionately on the street after a daring heist, as if to assure audiences that Woodcock is not a closeted homosexual who has cast Alma as his beard. Their relationship is not a conventional romance by any measure, but when Woodcock describes himself as a “confirmed bachelor”, he is not signalling his sexual preferences.

Phantom Thread suggests that such men do not want a lover, that Woodcock is not driven by lust or sex. Instead, Phantom Thread repeatedly suggests that Woodcock wants to be mothered. He is surprised to learn that Alma does not have a photo of her mother with her over dinner. “You must carry her with you always,” he advises Alma. He explains that he has even sewn some of his mother into his suit jacket; a lock of her hair. “I always have a part of her with me,” he explains. Later, Woodcock shows Alma a picture, tugging it out of her grasp as she touches the frame.

A familiar dance.

Woodcock does not want a wife so much as a surrogate mother. When Alma asks whether Cyril ever married, Woodcock hesitates, as if he never considered that as a possibility. “No.” He confirms. Woodcock acknowledges that the first dress that he made was for his mother’s second wedding, as if to suggest that all of his subsequent models have really just been surrogates. Woodcock even acknowledges some comfort in the idea that his mother is still looking over him from beyond the grave, although he finds it more comforting than unsettling.

This leads to one of the more interesting elements of Phantom Thread. There are certainly shades of Hitchcock to the film, both in terms of the story that it’s telling and how it chooses to tell that story. In terms of narrative, Phantom Thread is the story about a difficult artist who dresses up replaceable women in order to satisfy his creative impulses. In terms of construction, Phantom Thread sublimates its heavy sexual subtext into a psychological drama. Even in terms of framing and composition, Phantom Thread includes a significant emphasis on voyeurism.

Chew it over.

However, despite the debt that Phantom Thread owes to Alfred Hitchcock, the film makes a conscious effort to avoid ever being too taut or too intense. Phantom Thread is a study of obsession and co-dependence with some fairly dark plot elements, but it never has the sense of oppressive dread that permeated The Master or There Will Be Blood or Inherent Vice. Instead, there is a lot of wry British wit and arch one-liners, with characters seldom articulating their emotion states in favour of making a barbed (and quite funny) one liner.

As such, Phantom Thread feels like the spirit of Alfred Hitchcock channelled through the voice of Whit Stillman and shot through the lens Stanley Kubrick. Phantom Thread demonstrates Anderson’s complete control of his artform, his skillful use of the camera and his ability to carefully engineer a movie from the ground up. Phantom Thread looks gorgeous, perfectly capturing the mood of its postwar setting.

Taking her measure.

In particular, the sound design on Phantom Thread is spectacular, with the film consciously filling the awkward silences that fall between Woodcock and the women in his life. This is most notable in the breakfast sequences, where the sound of a knife scraping over burnt toast emphasises the lack of conversation in the air. It is also evident in the pregnant pauses between Woodcock and Alma, when his breathing fills the soundtrack. Even in these moments when there is no thought left to be articulated, Woodcock must be dominant.

However, there is a coldness to Phantom Thread, an arch and stiff quality that undercuts its beauty. There are times when the film feels very much like Alma modelling for Woodcock, raising her hand like a sentient mannequin to create the most aesthetically pleasing design and to allow him to gather the necessary information. There is seldom a sense of blood flowing through the film, of a heart beating in its chest.

Oh, Krieps.

For a story about a strange and unluckily co-dependency between to distinct people, Phantom Thread feels far too intellectual. Phantom Thread understands what it is about on an academic level, and conveys that thematic information in a very clear and commendable fashion, but it never sells the genuine emotional core of the story. Both Daniel Day Lewis and Vicky Krieps are great, and create compelling characters in their own right. However, their connection never feels palpable. The film never manages to get underneath the skin of their relationship and their dynamic.

The result is a film that feels very much like one of Woodcock’s design. It is built to be admired and looks nice on a model, but it never seems designed to contain a living thing.

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4 Responses

  1. Good review. Well written and insightful. I especially liked your point regarding the pampered male ego and tortured Male genius in light of the current #meto situation around the world. Working on a review myself. I think I liked the film a bit better than you did.

  2. I enjoyed reading your review immensely. What a tribute to Anderson that his work inspired such cogent, illuminating commentary.

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