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Thursday, January 11, 2018

Review: PHANTOM THREAD is, in a word, spellbinding

I've seen a lot of bad trailers in my years of paying attention to such things, but none seem to have stuck with me the way the marketing for Phantom Thread has in its various television spots especially, and not in a good way. There's something about the way it cuts out on Daniel Day-Lewis' line reading of "You can sew many things into the lining of a dress" CUT "...secrets...". It's a bizarre cut, and while the master thespian's Reynolds Woodcock clearly has more to say, the need for some kind of dramatic punctuation from the team that cut this trailer found that this was probably the best they had to work with.

I bring this up, because it's clear this is a movie that is patently difficult to sell. Its trailers make it look like a lavish costume drama, not far afield from the period pieces that Ang Lee and others made during the Oscar bait hey-day of the 90's. But in truth, that's really only its outside appearance, what Phantom Thread is instead is a difficult to categorize feature that is very much a part of the Paul Thomas Anderson oeuvre that has been harder to classify with each successive outing.

Recently, I saw a quote from Rian Johnson, where he compared each new film from Anderson as akin to the release of a new album from a really great band. I found this particularly astute, especially in how every film he releases is wholly unlike the one before it. My brain, of course, took this to the next extreme (whether logical or not), and opted to compare his work, after seeing the film in question, to the output of Radiohead. The obvious reason for this being Radiohead's chief musical genius, Jonny Greenwood, has been sitting alongside Anderson as his composer since his awards breakthrough in There Will Be Blood. But also, much like Anderson, Radiohead often feels like the last band on the horizon that continues to stretch the boundaries of what they can achieve sonically for an ever hungry fanbase, particularly in a world now more geared to auto-tuned pop stars. Both of these elements make them the immediate point of comparison, to which I tweeted:

In short, There Will Be Blood is that aforementioned critical breakthrough that turned PTA into a force to be reckoned with. The Master is his true masterpiece, rewarding repeat viewings unlike many films of its same timeframe, that also, in turn, divided audiences of the film previous. Inherent Vice is a sparser, much more brusque effort that even his most hardcore fanbase had difficulty reckoning with - though with a few years separating viewers from it, its respective virtues have come to light. And then we finally get to Phantom Thread (no "The"), a work that is strikingly gorgeous, far more tender than his recent efforts, and taking turns into unexpected mood shifts that pulls its viewers right alongside it. There's a very good chance, that for many, this will be their favorite of his works, with admiration growing as time continues on its ever winding path forward.

The centerpiece of Phantom Thread is the (hilariously titled) House of Woodcock, comprised of the world-famous Reynolds and his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville). Reynolds, a talented dressmaker without compare, is of a particularly unusual sort. A creature of habit and stubbornness, and prone to the occasional mood-swings. Yet the work he designs despite his somewhat tyrannical nature is stunning to behold. In short, he is the typical tortured genius artist, drug along by the right side of his brain in all things. Cyril, as much a business manager, as a sister, is his lone confidant, and she rules over all of the non-creative endeavors of their household with an iron fist.

But everything changes the moment he meets a young waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps), who he quickly breaks his life of confirmed bachelorhood for, turning her first into his lover/source of inspiration, and then into something far deeper. For her part, Vicky has to navigate both members of this unusual family, in order to affirm her place within their household. And the direction this relationship takes is anything but predictable, while scenes will echo and haunt you for days - and in my case, months.

Phantom Thread is, again, despite its cover, one of the most accessible films Anderson has crafted. Mixing moments of romantic deliverance with some of the funniest line readings in his entire oeuvre. It is literally impossible to overstate just how hilarious Daniel Day-Lewis is in this. It's an utterly unusual final note to go out on, but his performance is transcendent, especially in how he imbues Reynolds with palpable moments of struggle and the ongoing spectre of his deceased mother that continues to cast a pallor over his life, while providing the ongoing source of drive within his work ethic and creative energy. And yet every prickly piece of dialogue both in interaction with his source of stability in Cyril, and his muse in Alma, is funnier than the last. These moments of levity are a bit of a primer for the film's final denouement which verges on black comedy, or perhaps it would be more accurate to describe it as blackly romantic. It's strange, but there's a bit of alchemy within the fringes of the narrative, and it slowly peeks it way out every so often, until by the closing moments, it's as if the film's entire world has turned into a hyper-real fantasia. It's the most earned about-face that I've seen in some time.

Of course, the other clear thematic throughline is centered on Alma herself, with Krieps bursting through for American audiences in grand fashion, she is basically a POV character until she no longer is. For a time a victim of some level of emotional torment by Reynolds, Alma in turn learns to adapt to this strange lifestyle that she is whisked into, seeking a method of control in a unique struggle of push and pull with a mind so enraptured by his creative pursuits that it overrides his other instincts. I find the immediate comparison to be Darren Aronofsky's mother!, though unlike the broader allegorical aspects that feature presents, Phantom Thread is much clearer in its intent - that's neither a good or bad thing, but ambiguous this is not, and as such I think it presents a clearer picture regarding the individual dynamics that come into play in these sorts of relationships....or at least CAN come into play.

But the most immediate attractor will be the work's hypnotizing nature. It's without doubt one of Anderson's loveliest films, aided by its attention to swirling fabrics and how the camera floats its way through the impressive architecture of the Woodcock home, following behind guests, models and employees. It creates a bit of a world within a world, and by the time you're surrounded by gaudy costumes and giant masks of a London New Year's Eve party, its as if the spell Anderson has cast has fully taken form of your senses, to the tune of Greenwood's best work in the medium to date.

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