Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Dec 26, 2017 4:08 am 
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The shape of cloth

Paul Thomas Anderson's strange, beautiful new film concerns a renowned and haughty London couturier in the early Fifties. Within its repetitive structure there are twists and turns. Things don't go where you'd expect, but one can't help seeing that it's all in the editing: a little rearranging, as with the folds of an elaborate bouffant dress, could make things look quite different. This is an evocation of old-fashioned filmmaking in the grand style. There are openings, balls, sweeping drives along country roads in a beautiful car.* With its classic filmmaking and 35mm Panavision images, there's a sense of distinctive spaces. Emotions are not so clear. There are many. They flit by. They are distant.

Reynolds Woodcock, the designer, played by the magisterial Daniel Day-Lewis in what he says is his last film performance, is a priggish control freak, a prick really. But perhaps if he's the great and distinctive clothing designer that we're told he is, he has a right. He reigns. He designs gowns for members of the royal family (and not only England's) and for "film stars, heiresses, socialites, debutants and dames." He lives in a great house on a tranquil square in London with his sister and business and creative partner Cyril (Mike Leigh regular Leslie Manville), who, like a Mrs. Danvers, is his stern protectress, in the background of every scene. Into this prim, controlled world of fashion comes a new muse for Woodcock. The movie revolves around his relationship with her. The story of a fanatical artist morphs into a horror story in a world of Ibsenian claustrophobia and then devolves into a somewhat unconvincing happy romance.

As Anthony Lane writes, Phantom Thread "is about many things: clothing, sewing, driving, the risk of love, the exercise of power, and, above all, breakfast." There is a repetitive trope of breakfasts. Woodcock is always "working" and this begins at breakfast, and his tranquility must not be disturbed. At the first breakfast he announces to an elegant young woman (Camilla Rutherford) that he can't begin the day with "a confrontation." We sense that she is a favorite model on the way out of favor, and that there may be a series of these. On another day Woodcock drives out into the country and orders an elaborate breakfast at a hotel from a waitress, statuesque, with a long nose and thin mouth, whom he clearly likes. Welsh rarebit topped with a poached egg; bacon, scones, butter, cream, jam ("not strawberry") ; a pot of Lapsang tea. And sausages. Is he really hungry or is he wooing the waitress? Mainly the latter.

She is Alma (Vicky Krieps), and she is foreign, vaguely Germanic. He invites her to dinner, and she accepts. He takes her back to his London square and measures her every proportion, noted down by Cyril. She has no breasts, he notes, which is perfect. He keeps her as his muse, model, assistant. His Loulou de la Falaise, but hardly that - and this austere designer, loosely related to the English and American couturier Charles James, is an utter contrast to his kinky European counterparts whom we know from recent films, YSL, or Lagerfeld. Alma falls immediately into a pattern of " pliant rebellion," as Mike D'Angelo calls it.

Alma pushes Woodcock to let her love him, to do things for him. To cook for him, for instance: one evening she sends everyone out, including Cyril, to prepare a dinner for him alone. It is a disaster. He is completely discombobulated, then angry that she has prepared asparagus with a sauce, when he takes it plain, with olive oil - or is it butter? Does it matter? He is a petty tyrant, a child helpless outside his creative realm, where he is supreme. (Maybe Anderson is playing with what it's like to be a movie director, in the grand manner.) There's little sense of a collaboration between Alma and Woodcock. Even the way she butters her toast deeply annoys him: too much scraping noise. It's strongly hinted that Woodcock may have grown tired of Alma and want Cyril to send her away. This is a tense, claustrophobic battle of wills.

After much back and forth, many breeakfasts, many gowns, and more disasters, there is some kind of reconciliation. It's not wholly satisfying; it's confusing to some viewers; or may be an excellent topic of debate. In the end, Phantom Thread is a glimpse of a process, not of an event. The beauty is in the whole exquisite complexity of an elaborately constructed film, almost perfect but not quite. Its ultimate secret is hidden away as Woodcock sews words and secret things away in the folds of his gowns.

Phantom Thread, 130 mins., had a limited US theatrical release 25 Dec. 2017. Metacritic rating 93%.
Showing in some venues (e.g. 12 Jan. ff. at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema - New Mission in San Francisco, Austin TX & Brooklyn, the Music Box in Chicago) in 70mm. Highly recommended to see this exquisite film in that visually superior form.
*A maroon Bristol 405 ( '55-'58).

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