Monday, January 15, 2018

Phantom Thread: Gorgeously Odd

Phantom Thread is a sumptuous movie. It plays on all your senses, drawing you into its world, and binding you to the odd trio of characters at its center, who are playing a delicate game of wills that is full of mystery and madness. The costumes are gorgeous (don't even bother voting, give Mark Bridges the Best Costume Design Oscar), the food looks delicious, the music (and tactical silences) keep you firmly entrenched in this world, and when it's all over, you have to give yourself a little shake to step out of the 1950s and back into reality.

Set in London, this movie tells the story of Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a dressmaker adored by high society ladies and even European royalty. His sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), manages the business and manages her brother, ensuring that his life continues just the way he likes it so as not to disturb his delicate artistic temperament. This includes managing the various ladies he brings into their house to serve as his muse for a few months, before they begin to wear on him and need to be tactfully "handled" by Cyril. However, when he finds Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress in a restaurant, and invites her into his world, both he and Cyril discover they may have finally found a woman who knows how to play their ridiculous games.

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, it's hard to go into much more detail about this movie without basically giving away the entire plot. And it's a profoundly weird plot that I have discussed with multiple people over the past week; everyone has slightly different interpretations of what motivates these characters and why they end up doing what they do. Perhaps that's what makes this an intriguing film - nothing about it is very clear, and it serves as a bit of a Rorschach test of your psyche to examine what you took away from it all.

However, there are a few things I do know about this film. First, the acting is impeccable. Everyone has been going on about Daniel Day-Lewis, and I suspect that is motivated more by the fact that this is supposedly his last movie. I, however, was profoundly in love with the performances of the two women. Going into this movie, I feared it would be all about Reynolds, the troubles of being a man surrounded by women, and the first world problems that accompany the artistic temperament. Instead, it became a deviously funny and intriguing triangle with Cyril and Alma trying to suss each other out to see who was best suited to managing Reynolds and his eccentricities. Manville and Krieps deliver outstanding performances, conveying more with wry expressions than with their sarcastic dialogue, and gradually forming an unlikely partnership.

Second, while the overarching plot of this movie may have been confusing, it strings together moments in an absolutely delightful way. There are three distinct scenes where Alma is eating breakfast with Cyril, and the evolution of their relationship is completely captured by how much noise she makes while buttering her bread. It's simply extraordinary.

Speaking of extraordinary, the movie is an aesthetic masterpiece. Every dress featured in the movie is a delicate confection that I immediately wanted to wear, and there is a scene where Alma is participating in a fashion show and cannot keep the joy off her face as she slips into one exquisite dress after another and twirls around in front of the potential buyers. The main house they live in is an alabaster altar to fashion, very stark and clean, with a dizzying spiral staircase that makes you want to run down it with a dress with a long train trailing out behind you. The score, by Jonny Greenwood, is a constant presence, only fading at acute moments (like breakfast) when some serious drama is about to go down. And then there's the food, and the tea, and the painstaking attention to detail that make everything about this film make you long to live in 1950s London and shove your face full of scones all day.

Phantom Thread won't be everyone's cup of tea (pun intended). But it is compelling cinema featuring virtuoso performances from its leading actors and utter dedication from every member of the crew. The lighting, makeup, costume, production design, and cinematography all meld together to make every frame feel like a painting that should be hung in the National Gallery. Even if you find yourself bewildered by the bizarre plot and these decidedly unusual characters, you will surely find yourself enchanted by their surroundings.

If you want to read a spoilerific transcript of my friend Alan and I trying to make sense of this movie right after watching it, head on over to his article on Geekly, Inc!

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