She Got Her Man

Phantom Thread a film by Paul Thomas Anderson.  With Vicky Krieps, Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville  *****

It’s tough to like a movie when you can’t stand the protagonist.  But I absolutely loved Phantom Thread.  It’s a candidate for my favorite movie of the year.

Reynolds Woodcock—who has a hard name to live up to—is a neurotic, arrogant, selfish, self-centered, self-absorbed designer of dresses, portrayed brilliantly by Daniel Day-Lewis.  He has a weird ongoing relationship with his dead mother, who apparently taught him his trade.  He has the odd distinction of having sewn his mother’s wedding gown, for her second wedding.  He also has a strange relationship with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), who simultaneously seems to depend on him and control him.  She runs his business and lives off it; she has the business mind and he has the talent.  There’s a moment when they’re beginning a fight and she says, “Don’t pick a fight with me, you certainly won’t come out alive. I’ll go right through you and it’ll be you who ends up on the floor. Understood?”  I understood.  I believed her, too.

Woodcock also seems to have depended all his life on a series of lovers/collaborators/models/muses; we see one who is about to depart and then we see the latest candidate, whose name is Alma (Vicky Krieps).  He meets her first when she is a waitress at a restaurant he happens into.  He doesn’t seduce her, exactly; he allows her to fall in love.  And from that point on they’re completely dependent on one another for everything they do.  It doesn’t seem to be a healthy mutually satisfying relationship, though it produces a lot of good work.  There seems to be something sick about it.

Woodcock also depends on a large flock of seamstress women, who come into his home every day and sew the beautiful and elaborate dresses that he designs.  His whole life is dependent on women, and of course they’re dependent on him.  At the head of that flock of women is this dead mother, who makes a weird appearance in the film at a moment when he is ill.

Woodcock is one of those artists who arranges his whole day, his whole life, and all the people in his life, around creating his art.[1]  We see that most obviously in his morning routine, which is to sit and sketch at the breakfast table with his sister and the current muse.  When Alma comes in one morning and scrapes her toast, pours her tea too loud, the man flies into a rage.  It is then that she begins to realize her real place in his life, and the way the relationship is not mutual.[2]  She further realizes that one evening when she tries to surprise him by chasing all the other women out of the house and cooking a special meal for him.  The man literally almost panics when he realizes he doesn’t have his women around.  It’s a fascinating moment.  And the argument he and Alma have at that point—about how to serve asparagus, of all things—is the central emotional moment in the movie.  It is the primal moment of woman vs. man, a woman who understands her emotions and emotional life in general vs. a man who is protecting himself and his emotions at all cost.  It’s a classic moment and a classic exchange.  It was my favorite scene in the movie.

Daniel Day-Lewis of course is a great actor, but Vicky Krieps more than holds her own against him, in the same way that Alma stands up to Woodcock.  Anyone writing about this movie faces an intractable problem at this point, because the way Alma overcomes the emotional impasse between them, the way she becomes not just one more in a series of serial lovers, is so weird, and unexpected, that we can hardly believe what we’re seeing, and don’t fully understand it, but it would be unfair to reveal it in a review.  The idea in the end that he’s actually colluding in the process is weird beyond belief, but also seems weirdly true.  The artist wants to hide behind his pose as Great Artist, wants to protect himself from the world, but really, like everyone else, he wants to be intimate with another human being.  The way intimacy comes about in this movie is tender and touching and deeply strange.  It’s stranger than anything else I’ve seen in a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, and that’s saying something.

Three of the performances in this movie are Academy Award worthy.  I’m not saying they’ll win, or that I want them to, but I’d be happy if they did.  The movie itself also is, though its essential strangeness presents a problem.  But at the very least, I would say I was riveted by this film as I was by no other movie this year.  One hundred forty minutes flew by.  And I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

[1] I can’t help thinking of my own artistic mentor, Reynolds Price.  He—like Woodcock—was strikingly good looking, dressed elaborately, had a belief in himself that bordered on arrogance (sometimes crossing the border) and arranged his whole life around creating his art, spending the whole day alone to produce one page of prose.  His muses were young men, whom he went through in a serial way, the way Woodcock goes through women, but whom he never lived with.  That was his life until he got spinal cancer, which of course shook him to his core, and everything changed.  He had to have a young man living with him to take care of him.  His body became huge and misshapen and paraplegic.  And somehow his situation opened the floodgates on his prose.  He started producing more like ten pages per day than one.

[2] The peculiar character and often odd behavior of many artists has to do with the fact that they are trying to protect something real, their creative part, by building a barrier around it.  Our creative part is extremely tender, and can be damaged and destroyed by the world.  But the truth is that our creative part needs contact with the world, which actually feeds it.  An artist who protects himself too much produces desiccated work that has no heart.  We need to go ahead and let the world hurt us, and hope that we can survive.