Sunday 11 February 2018

In stitches: "Phantom Thread"

It would seem as though even Paul Thomas Anderson, that great white hope of American cinema, has succumbed to the Downton effect - or perhaps he was ahead of the curve all along. Ever since the grand folly of 1999's still-astounding Magnolia and its pendant-film, 2002's Punch-Drunk Love - Anderson's last fully open texts, each an attempt to fathom out the craziness of this world, and the relationships we strike up in it - this pre-eminent cineaste has come to turn his back on the present day, or to address it only obliquely, digging into the roots of capitalism by converting Sinclair Lewis's novel Oil! into 2007's There Will Be Blood, examining the scars and needs of post-WW2 America in 2012's The Master, retreating into the post-Vietnam disillusionment of Thomas Pynchon's shaggy PI Doc Sportello for 2014's Inherent Vice. Each of these big-canvas works has proceeded with intent more ambitious than simply to adorn their exceptional performers with pretty bows and ribbons; there now follows Phantom Thread, which proposes there might be some virtue in a costume drama - literally a costume drama, centred as it is on a celebrated (fictional) designer in 1950s London - which follows no trend whatsoever, and is as eccentric as any contemporary American filmmaker might be allowed to get away with.

Not for Anderson the sweeping portrait of an era we've become accustomed to; instead, we get a cockeyed character study. Suede-soft where his oil baron in There Will Be Blood was carbon-hard - just don't rub him the wrong way - Daniel Day-Lewis's Reynolds Woodcock presents as an effete aesthete, meticulous in his workshop, distant and detached beyond it, and so obsessed with his own and other people's mothers it will be no surprise to amateur psychologists that he should fall for a woman who furnishes him with breakfast: gauche country waitress Alma (Luxembourgian newcomer Vicky Krieps). Reynolds takes down her numbers, dresses Alma up, and makes her feel special - but Anderson has already established the designer's tendency to treat his muses as seasonal, keeping them on site (in what's grandly referred to as "the House of Woodcock") for the few months necessary to get his next collection out into the world before drifting off in search of something and someone new. The only dame to have stuck around this fellow for any length of time is his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), and we sense he only tolerates her presence because she helps to show his lovers the door, and because she, too, knew dear Mama.

As in Darren Aronofsky's mother!, what we find ourselves looking at invites reading as the work of a prominent artist apparently engaged in an oblique form of self-portraiture, picking over his relationships with the women in his life. (If they hadn't been conceived long in advance of the first allegations levelled against Harvey Weinstein, we might group these movies as the responses of creatively minded men compelled to wrestle anew with their conduct in matters of the heart and crotch.) Yet where the agonised Aronofsky adopted a mortifying approach, using a two-hour movie to effectively beat himself up, Anderson proves wryly self-deprecating, leaning more towards comedy than tragedy; it's a similar idea, realised with an entirely different disposition. (One obvious connection/deviation: the deployment of comic performers. Kristen Wiig in mother! was broadly on the writer's side, and not required to do anything funny; Anderson sends on Julia Davis at a crucial moment to give his protagonist extra needle.) At no point, really, are we invited to look upon Reynolds Woodcock as anything other than a total oddbod: a terminally grouchy fusspot, forever stalking around the gloomier corners of his own head, he could stand for any number of male creatives, expert with fabrics, not so careful with human flesh.

Anderson and his actors nudge this material away from the museum piece others might have generated: almost every scene has the immediacy of this director's earlier films. It was an inspired choice to contrast the insistent thought and weight of Day-Lewis with the airy lightness of the novice Krieps - here is a girl who wants and needs to dance, paired with a man with veins popping out of his temples, so of course we fear for the future of this pairing, and that something in her may well be crushed by something in him. There was something very smart, too, in the casting of Manville as Day-Lewis's sis: here is an actress - perhaps one of the few actresses on the planet capable of this - who never once appears overawed by her co-star. The film comes into its sharpest focus in those breakfast scenes that force Reynolds to descend from his garret and have his words and actions subjected to closer scrutiny by the women of the piece; it's here he falls subject to a wicked narrative turn that lays the designer open to a greater dependency, which may or may not be the same thing as love. (Anderson actually proves more paranoid than Aronofsky in this respect, allowing for the possibility that a muse might exact some measure of revenge.)

Yet it's typical of Phantom Thread's overriding perversity that even these scenes should come cluttered up with curious, pernickety detail that, over the long haul, obscures as much as it reveals: the loud scraping of toast, the limp way Reynolds dangles his asparagus stalks in an accompanying jus, Krieps' accent. (The film's signature image: a close-up of a label sewn into a dress, on which a phrase has been written in a cursive so rarefied it's impossible to read. "Never owned"? "Never cursed"?) My feeling remains that Anderson got badly hurt by the commercial failure of Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love, his sincerest splurges, and thereafter began putting up the kind of shutters a sensitive soul might well hide behind. Farewell the solid-gold disco classics that helped make Boogie Nights such a blast, and the straightahead emotion of Aimee Mann; hello Jonny Greenwood's space-between-the-notes noodling, inviting the same kind of introspection as Radiohead sleeve notes.

There is even more control nowadays, and some of the mannerism that followed has unarguably been brilliant (There Will Be Blood), even if the more recent work has proven brilliant and exasperating in equal measure. Phantom Thread is never less than elegantly appointed, and filigreed with all the craft and nous PTA now routinely brings to his projects - but an essential part of its project is to withhold, deflect, mystify: it's not very Downton, at the last, but it is terribly English, which I don't entirely mean as a compliment. Anderson seems to be in a happier place than he was around the time of his last release, but the film's idea of happiness is shifty and wriggling: it's simply less trustworthy than the implied heartbreak Inherent Vice came saturated in. As it is, I think I preferred mother!, because it's always more dynamic to see a creative ripping his heart out and throwing it at the screen than one serving it up to us at arm's length in tiny, careful slivers - particularly when it's unclear just how serious he's being about it. And I may be alone in this, but I do miss the days when Anderson's characters would do anything so straightforward as sing to us.

Phantom Thread is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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