February 11, 2018 § Leave a comment
All five senses play a part in Phantom Thread, plus one or two extra, though vision tends to dominate, the camera looking through doors, up or down stairwells, the frame lavishly filled with jewel-like fabrics, their folds animated by light and shadow under the controlling hand and eye of designer Reynolds Woodcock, whose clothes are made for wealthy or aristocratic women, even royalty. He is London’s answer to Dior’s New Look, recalling Norman Hartnell or Hardy Amies (all three names that chime, along with Hitchcock’s) and he rules with tyrannical detachment over the beautiful house where the beautiful dresses are made and where he lives with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville). Overseeing both couture house and family home, she exerts the trenchant efficiency of a grand vizier, despatching those whose role as Sultan’s favourite has run its course. Alma (Vicky Krieps) enters his sights as replacement, but one with a touch of Scheherazade.
She has no surname in the film, no past, no elsewhere, other than in a hesitant foreign accent. On her first encounter with Reynolds, she stumbles into a piece of furniture and blushes, then smiles at her own self-consciousness, clearly enraptured by his attention. This brings Hitchcock’s Rebecca to mind, where the (nameless) new wife of Max is chronically clumsy – until at last she knows she is loved. And Rebecca’s ancestor Jane Eyre, with Woodcock echoing Rochester.
Acknowledging Rebecca as a source, Paul Thomas Anderson has described his film as a gothic romance. It’s stitched with fairytale elements, sometimes literally, and it also has patterns of a mythic kind.
Alma has advantages over Max’s wife. Although besotted, young, and without Woodcock’s utter self-possession, she has a mind of her own, and, as we discover, a complicated soul (it’s what her name means, after all). She wants to keep both as well as to be loved. She welcomes Woodcock’s claims on her body, as a lover, but for him above all she’s a creature to be moulded, transformed from waitress to elegant muse and model. There’s an ambiguity about his sexuality, certainly signs that the he fears getting too close to women: ‘I’m a confirmed bachelor’ he tells her in that now obsolete euphemism for gay men.
Eating here is a branch of eroticism. Through luxuriance in the flavours and textures of food it connects to other kinds of appetite. Yet when Alma proves to be a sensualist at table Reynolds takes her home not for seduction but measurements. Enter Cyril to write these down, asserting an authority that’s both infantilising and intrusive. Like a charming ogress scenting prey, she sniffs out the components of Alma’s fragrance. At this trespass on the intimacy of body scent, the latter’s indignation breaks out on her face, a face that always betrays feeling. Only in this does she give herself away.
Food has sounds as well as taste. Alma is a noisy eater and the scrape of butter laid on toast incurs Reynolds’ wrath, as does any attempt to wean him from his rigid regime of habits. It is her task not just to soften Reynolds’ tyranny, but to overturn it. The tyranny of a spoiled child.
Alma, in love, does want to give herself, but on her own terms. And from the start: smiling happily as his satisfied eyes stake ownership, she warns Reynolds that in any staring match with her he’s bound to lose. Cyril’s role is to smooth all paths to her brother’s ‘genius’, coddling and indulging, but she too warns him – against a quarrel that she’s bound to win. Within this particular trio the instability of Reynolds’ power becomes suddenly apparent.
To shore up his talents and success, he relies on the shadow presence of his dead mother and the protective magic of talismans and artisanal spells secreted in linings and seam flaps. We see Alma furtively remove one of these from a wedding dress. Meanwhile, her campaign of taming Reynolds’ narcissism starts with a thimble for drastic measures, and it’s by way of culinary sado-masochism that things proceed.
Alongside its classic cinema references Phantom Thread reminded me of quite a different film: Secretary (2002), a pared-down, off-kilter romcom with Maggie Gillenhaal and James Spader as secretary and boss who engage in a casually sadomasochistic office relationship that, through Gillenhaal’s stubborn efforts, is transformed by genuine feeling. Phantom Thread is much richer of course, and much odder too, with its uneasy strain of humour. Stylishly furnished with clothes and objects, teasingly full of filmic and fabular allusions, archly suggested meta-texts, it is a great pleasure to watch, and almost to touch, taste and lingeringly inhale (leaving aside the over-lush soundtrack). Peel away the surfaces and what’s left, however, depends not on substance but the performances, by those being dressed and by those wielding pins and scissors, as well as the principals.
Day-Lewis is loaded with enough charisma to save him on the verge of being ridiculous. He’s a handsome man, as Alma tells him, though at times, according to Reynolds’ fluctuating mood, whether in charge or with nose out of joint, that high-browed face assumes the look of an eagle or buzzard (not some woodcockish little bird). The two women are no less to be admired for their subtle and strenuous dislocations of male power. Any Pygmalion deserves what he gets.
I’d rejoice at these feminist sympathies were I able to take the film a little more seriously. I’d have laughed more too.