Sunday, June 3, 2018
Everything begins. Everything ends. There’s nothing we can do about that. And it’s more than likely none of it is going to make any sense. Maybe you learned something from the experience but that still doesn’t mean it’s going to be of any use to you in the future. Regardless, there are still those mysteries in life, like how the hell Mark Wahlberg’s Eddie Adams in BOOGIE NIGHTS took a bus from Torrance to Reseda and back every day, a near impossibility on any reasonable level in case you’re not so familiar with Southern California. I half-jokingly asked Paul Thomas Anderson about this via Twitter some months back for a PHANTOM THREAD-related Q&A and he simply replied “BUSTED” all in capital letters. So he knows. He’s just not worried about such details involving strict realism. Taking any of this literally is never the issue. Waiting for answers is a waste of time. There’s pain and that’s all you know.
Still, one question worth asking is does the past matter. It forms us, of course, which is unavoidable. And since Anderson wrote and directed PHANTOM THREAD, I suppose he has his own thoughts on the world that surrounds Reynolds Woodcock, the fashion designer played by Daniel Day-Lewis, but he’s under no obligation to reveal any of that to us. I managed three theatrical viewings of PHANTOM THREAD, one each in DCP, 35mm and 70mm (which was best? Possibly the 35) plus I’ve already done multiple viewings at home and the next one could be any time now. But this doesn’t mean I’m ever going to have any interest in the post-war London world of fashion. As for whether or not the dresses designed by Woodcock are even any good, something I’ve seen people debate on Twitter, this is far outside my area of expertise and just because he acts like the world considers him a genius doesn’t mean he is one. In the context of the film, it’s clear that the answer to the question isn’t even going to matter by a certain point anyway. The specifics of the timeframe are kept unclear, I presume deliberately, so it’s simply the England of ‘the 50s’, an era that will presumably never end as far as the House of Woodcock is concerned. We don’t know how far off the sixties are but, then again, they don’t either and I doubt Reynolds Woodcock even cares what year it is until he’ll be forced to. Like Don Draper in 1960, he sees no signs of the future so to him any notion of it and anything fucking chic is fucking irrelevant. All that matters is what goes on within his own head within his walls when he’s eating his own breakfast that hopefully won’t be interrupted and as long as he has any say in the matter no one will ever be allowed to tamper with that. That’s what he believes, anyway.
In 50s London, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a successful dressmaker who with loyal sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) runs the esteemed and successful House of Woodcock. Soon after the completion of the latest item for one of his patrons, Reynolds has Cyril break it off with his current live-in love and he takes off for their country house where at breakfast meets Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps) a waitress who takes his rather unwieldy order. Accompanying him to dinner she quickly learns about his past and habit of sewing secret messages into the dresses he creates. She moves in and their relationship blossoms even as he begins to see signs of her own independence. But when she makes an even greater gesture of love towards him which goes badly due to his refusal to do anything to upset his strict routine she makes one giant reach towards control of Reynolds to prove the feelings she has for him once and for all.
More than just about any recent film that comes to mind, PHANTOM THREAD allows me to breathe. Whether it’s that impeccable feeling of the past Anderson has achieved before in other films or the fullness in the way shots are framed, the air enters my lungs and I exhale, relaxing as the film proceeds and the cruelty begins. You can tell how much Paul Thomas Anderson loves his characters by the hell he puts them through. It’s one that is often of their own making and he gleefully follows them along that journey to the other side of the narrative where he then sends them off to the rest of their lives that we’ll never see. PHANTOM THREAD is possibly the most comforting film he’s ever made and each time I see it I find myself eager to sink into its rhythm of enforced elegance while still aware that this is very possibly the harshest, most unwelcome vibe he’s ever presented to us.
There’s an eternal sense of refinement hanging in the air, at least partly thanks to the impeccable Jonny Greenwood score playing as Reynolds Woodcock primps for each day carefully, each second going exactly the way he demands. He’s no doubt barely advanced as a human from the time he made that first dress for his mother long ago, a memory he speaks of with as much tenderness as he ever allows himself to. And he’s cocooned himself away from the world with his patrons coming to him with even the Bristol 405 he drives around in feeling deliberately framed to emphasize how he keeps the outside world shut off, zipping off to his country house as fast as possible. When Alma trips over something as she enters his line of vision, he zeros in on her, ready to take her on as he orders that massive breakfast. I still dream of how that Welsh rarebit with the poached egg and all those scones must taste. He assumes she’s going to be another one of them, just as loyal sister Cyril isn’t at all surprised to see someone new in the house when they first meet. Since he doesn’t know anything about her she’s a blank, just as she is to us, which is probably the way he likes it. But it’s just as clear that Alma senses something about him right away herself, correctly referring to him as the ‘boy’ in the note she passes along, how ready she is to take him on in the staring contest she knows she will never lose. The relationship becomes a form of that staring contest before Reynolds even realizes it.
My feelings on Anderson’s films in this decade are complex (THE MASTER still floors me and remains flat out brilliant; INHERENT VICE is harder to pin down even after multiple viewings) but this one feels the most certain of what it wants to be, of its assuredness in who these characters are. He’s moved from the roving, swinging camera of his first films to closing in on his actors, getting more interested in their nuances, more comfortable with their hateful flaws and as impeccable as the world he presents is nothing interests him as much as the faces of his three leads. The Phantom Thread of the title almost implies that it will lead to a literal ghost story but instead the significance turns out to lie elsewhere. It’s an art where the broad strokes of the work are there for the world to see but you have to look deeper, the true meaning is hidden just as the true meaning of whatever this relationship is. Whatever that art, as well as that romance, means deep down it’s something that no one else will ever know or fully understand. “I just want to bash your face in,” Adam Sandler tells Emily Watson with all the love in the world in Anderson’s PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE but while Reynolds and Alma never say this to each other by a certain point it’s easy to imagine that they could. She brings that out in him and the intensity of the surprise dinner scene that enrages him so much makes this clear right from the moment when his whole being seems to inwardly collapse as he realizes that this night she’s secretly planned is going to be a whole thing. The argument they have is about everything and nothing beyond what they’re doing together, what they could ever possibly mean to each other and he never has the slightest idea she’s the one who has the answer to that.
BARRY LYNDON certainly comes to mind but maybe it’s the way the candlelight adds to the ambiance or just the power of certain music cues. The essence of the past is felt in each frame (no director of photography is credited and Anderson has said there really wasn’t one; with his usual DP Robert Elswitt unavailable, instead he worked in close tandem with the camera crew to achieve what he wanted with Michael Bauman credited as lighting cameraman) but it’s also how absolutely correct every single shot feels, how it always knows to keep just the right amount of distance from someone. There’s always a calm in the air right down to the tiny gestures whether the way he drinks he tea from that bowl, the barely there nod to Cyril when she finally convinces him to show the previous girl the door or just the way any of them stare at each other, realizing the secrets but never quite putting them into words. It’s all part of the calmness that Reynolds clearly doesn’t want disrupted as long as he’s in the room. As a result the jolt of energy that comes during the fashion show sequence brings a sense of a glee to the camerawork representing the sheer delight Alma is feeling at being part of his world, only caring when he’s the one watching.
But when they begin to get under each other’s skin, when Alma simply refuses to ever let Reynolds have the last word you can sense Anderson becoming more interested in what they say to each other by the moment. The mental picture we all have of Kubrick directing with that glare of his here becomes Paul Thomas Anderson’s gleefully cockeyed view as if presenting his own version of Jack Nicholson in THE SHINING annoyed that Shelley Duvall is interrupting him over and over again, only this time with the unwelcome offer of tea no matter how pleasant it might seem. The wealthy and somewhat pathetic heiress Barbara Rose, played by Harriet Sansom Harris who displays a miracle of self-loathing characterization in just a few brief moments, is collateral damage in this struggle, a woman so fragile she barely seems able to walk from one end of the room to another by herself. It’s hard not to feel compassion for her terror at whatever this sham marriage is and the film is aware of this but all that matters is the lack of respect her behavior displays towards the dress designed specifically for her, causing the loyalty that Alma already feels to finally take hold amidst the growing rage she feels at what she’s been witnessing, the lack of care given to what Reynolds has deigned to create.
We still never learn anything about Alma’s past, although if Anderson’s recent confirmation that she’s Jewish is correct that certainly adds a new layer to things. All we really know in the end is the way she stands and how she’ll never stop. The echoes of something like REBECCA deliberately hang over the film, even as Cyril, sniffing around her like a vampire when they first meet, never becomes the Mrs. Danvers we expect her to, maybe because even she can tell right from the start that Alma is different from the other girls who have eventually needed to be quietly escorted out. Possibly even more than Kubrick or any British films it might be paying homage to, whether BRIEF ENCOUNTER (THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS, another Lean title from the period, has been mentioned as an influence and it’s a stunner) or any random Merchant Ivory title it feels instead like an alternate universe Hitchcock love story from the sixties where that director somehow found a way to break out of the cold schematics of his plotting to let the Kim Novak/Janet Leigh/Vera Miles/Tippi Hedren figures become as strong as they are in our dreams of what we sometimes want them to be.
It’s a PSYCHO where Marion so enraptures Norman that she manages to keep him from killing her and she sticks around, a third act of VERTIGO where Judy decides to take advantage of what she knows about Scottie for her own benefit, a version of THE BIRDS where Melanie Daniels visits Mitch up in Bodega Bay and takes over his world while all the title characters ever do is watch over them from the sky. The film has a sense of freedom that late Hitchcock never has, a danger that one of the characters could break away from the story at any moment, that if they pause for a few extra unexpected seconds in the middle of the shot their entire world could collapse. Anderson seems more willing to follow them if they break away from the hermetically sealed view of the frame that Hitchcock would never have allowed and Reynolds Woodcock, with his lanky build, serves as his own version of Norman Bates with his mother lingering inside his head for all time, even catching a glimpse of Alma’s walk through the fashion show through his own peephole while he refuses to let himself be seen. Not knowing what to do with his memories he stays trapped in his own head and his own obsessions, peering to the world outside that he’s afraid of for reasons that he can’t explain and the woman who knows more secrets than she’s letting on, eventually learning exactly how to pull the strings.
PHANTOM THREAD never explains these feelings but obviously Reynolds Woodcock would refuse to do that anyway. He’d probably tell anyone who asked to fuck off. The rest of the world doesn’t matter since it’s mostly made up of people who are irrelevant or crazy themselves and certainly looking around at all the people at the New Year’s celebration that Reynolds drags Alma out of I can’t blame him for wanting to stay home. The rest of the world is its own sort of madhouse. Those thoughts and feelings belong ourselves as we reach to the past, desperately looking for an answer that never comes. The ghostly vision of his mother clothed in the lost wedding dress he speaks of offers him nothing but a blank stare, whatever memories they are never quite reconciled but instead that energy is simply transferred once he has his revelation. With Alma taking as long as possible to pour that simple glass of water near the end as he prepares to eat that mushroom omelette moments before his final realization, PHANTOM THREAD is like a perverse dream of the perfection that might, just might, occur between two people, a form of impeccable love coming together in the most gloriously horrible form imaginable leading. It’s a love that can never be turned away from because it will never stop. Maybe it’s the only way such a connection can ever really occur. The past doesn’t get forgotten, it would be impossible to even try. But if you don’t burrow down into where the pain really lies to what that relationship needs to be then it fails. The page does need to be turned, no matter what has to be done, for that to ever happen.
In what is allegedly his final performance, Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock finds the very essence of his character in each small movement and quietly phrased line of dialogue, shutting out any part of the world that displeases him. His Daniel Plainview in THERE WILL BE BLOOD exploded to envelop all that was around him; Reynolds Woodcock sucks it all in, taking control of his house in his own quiet way. The insistence that he’s the only person in the room who matters gets projected off everyone, which more often than not results in his look of total contempt the second he loses interest and every second of that is remarkable. It makes sense that Emily Krieps as Alma isn’t really a newcomer but most of us haven’t seen her before so her quiet determination at what she knows that we don’t becomes part of the subtext even though she doesn’t have to spend the film proving her worth; we’re certain of that early on and what she holds back is unforgettable in her quiet smiles becoming their own sort of Mona Lisa with us wondering what else lies within. Placed against the two of them, Lesley Manville is a true rock but as unmoving as she seems you can tell that she’ll never let you fully know which side she’s on and her smallest remarks are able to cut down more than anyone could, the absolute certainty of how much attention she needs to pay at any given moment. The small roles from Gina McKee to Julia Davis to even someone like Silas Carson (who played Nute Gunray in the STAR WARS films so he can say that he appeared in both PHANTOM THREAD and THE PHANTOM MENACE) as Barbara Rose’s future husband Rubio Gurrero, are each note perfect in their own way to bring life to this world of rarified air.
Right now my life is a little like a blank slate which could be a good thing. But I still don’t know. Too many things that now represent pain to me have been erased from the world to be sure. But PHANTOM THREAD knows that it’s really all just a comedy anyway so take it too seriously would be to admit defeat. That still doesn’t solve what to do about all the fucking pain, but still. It’s just that sometimes you’re destined to lose what you’re reaching for just as easily as you lose a staring contest, leading you to reach for another beginning without any real idea what that may lead to. It’s the best film of 2017 (if we agree that TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN doesn’t count as a “film” but that debate can be saved for another time) and nothing else comes close; certainly it’s the only one that’s already entered whatever canon exists in my own head. As mysterious as the past will always be, Alma sees her future with Reynolds clearly; maybe it will happen, maybe it won’t. Maybe it even fixes some of the past they shared, with her vision of a New Year’s celebration where they really did go dancing together. This isn’t the only Paul Thomas Anderson film where the characters seem in denial about what the future holds but it only gives us this temporary ending. After all, in real life things often don’t end. You just look up one day and they’re over. But sometimes you’re able to move beyond, crystalizing those obsessions and insecurities into a greater connection, one where the mysteries being held back by that other person have at last been revealed. And if you accept how you feel when that happens, it all becomes clear. If only. Because if that doesn’t happen, maybe there never was a relationship in the first place. Usually there’s just the pain that you can’t do anything about but maybe the best hope is to find the love in the hate which inevitably develops. Maybe in the end that’s the only hope.