Phantom Thread

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Three years ago Paul Thomas Anderson gave us Inherent Vice, a rambling, fidgety, often irritating, over-long technicolor blast of the 70s that nevertheless managed to be often entertaining and even funny. Now he turns his attentions to the vapid 50s, a palette drained of colour, people drained of life and passion.

Designer to the rich, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis, in what he says will be his last film performance) is an egocentric despot, who after primping himself each morning with a preening of the quiff and a snip of the nose and ear hair, presides over his highly successful fashion house with finicky intensity. The actual running of it is done with clockwork precision by his sister Cyril (yes, Cyril, one example of the forced oddity that peppers this very odd film), played with pursed lips and knowing eyes by Leslie Manville as only she can. An army of diligent white-coated seamstresses are marshalled up the stairs each morning like the workers in Metropolis to labour with modest downcast eyes on an array of clothes for those as rich and self-obsessed as the designer himself.

When the New Look arrived, it was meant to bring in a liberation after the austere strictures of wartime, a flamboyant use of cloth for its own sake after rationing, a feminising after uniform and make-do-and-mend. So what’s happened here? The dresses are stiff, constricting, for the most part in colour-drained shades of cream, white and palest pink, mostly evening gowns, little to actually live in. The customers are defeminised, with few curves and skull-hugging short hair, and a cloned look about them. Into a seam of each garment Reynolds sews a precious little gnomic motto. There seems little joy, it’s a tense business, and when we see the first creation (on luckless Gina McKee), it’s surely laughable that all this intensity has produced what could be a watered-down fancy dress creation à la Disney princess. But we’re meant to be impressed. When later in the film a stoutish middle-aged and unhappy customer gets emotionally tipsy in one of Reynolds’ creations, she’s unceremoniously carted off and physically stripped of it, as ‘not deserving the dress’. A ritual humiliation carried out on a body not up to Reynolds’ high standards of abstract perfection that is embarrassing to watch. Meant to be funny? Let’s all laugh at the fat and the old.

Exhausted by all this Reynolds goes off to the coast to recuperate, where he espies waitress Alma (Luxembourgeoise newcomer Vicky Krieps) and uncharacteristically, it seems, falls for something in her gawky clumsiness. In no time she’s joined his entourage as a model and muse (with all the baggage that word now brings with it). There’s a creepy scene where Reynolds measures her up and declares he can make her what shape he wants. Films of male control such as Vertigo and Rebecca might spring to mind, but with no hinterland for either of these two (though Reynolds has some cockamamie tale of his weird tragic mother, whose ghost he sometimes sees) there’s no aching obsession or suppressed passion or hidden trauma to give real life to their relationship. He’s just a self-regarding controller and a bully, and as such is not interesting. The odd Withnail-like dialogue does not help us see him as a real human person. As their somewhat bloodless relationship develops, inexplicably the things that turned him on, her clumsiness, her very normalness, her admiration, even, begin to irritate. She appears to makes noises when she eats – though she’s intrinsically a quiet person and it’s hard to know if she really is this boorish, as the sound of cutlery on plates and chewing is enhanced so we hear it through his delicate ears.

Like Jane Eyre, who can’t have the full-strength Rochester until he’s been made vulnerable by his blindness, Alma can’t have him until he’s weaker than her, and her method of bringing this about is unorthodox, to say the least. Does he really love her, and needs and wants this liberation from being the controller? Oh, I don’t know.

If only you cared enough to mind, to root for her or worry about their relationship, or his weird needs. But you don’t. Icily null, as cold, colourless and self-regarding as Reynold’s creations, while magnificently acted and gorgeous to look at in its chilly way, it seems increasingly like an exercise in film-making, aspiring to be clever and odd for the sake of oddness itself rather than in any organic, driven way. It looks like an indulgence. Should I give it a second chance? To actively want to watch a movie again is a sign of a good film. To feel you need to, the mark so often of arthouse pretentiousness.

I’ve been a great admirer of Anderson’s work, indeed There Will Be Blood is one of my top films of recent years. Inherent Vice, generally unpopular among critics and public alike, I gave the benefit of the doubt. But this, almost universally acclaimed… a case, appropriately, of the emperor’s new clothes?

Seen at Tyneside Cinema, February 2018

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