Phantom Thread (2017)

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DISCLAIMER: It’s much better to read this after you’ve seen the movie. You won’t be “spoiled” necessarily, but I think this is an experience you should go into completely cold.

I recall once asking a therapist about why I was inept at maintaining social dynamics and relationships. They concluded that it wasn’t so much that I was inept, but I was being protective due to the possibility of rejection, judgment or being held captive somehow. I guess when you grow up in a tumultuous environment, punctured by the loss of a parent or someone close, your wiring is altered to prefer solitude.  You almost become autistic in crowded scenarios.  Too much stimuli, demand for attention, or even loudness can be problematic for some.  Take for example, someone that is cemented to routine.  It’s safer and there’s little chance you can recreate the tumultuous environment or loss that you struggled with early on in life.  All of this psychology became both complex and enlightening for me.  It made me wonder about how two people do learn to grow, accept, and consistently appreciate one another over time.  

In fact, they adopt the need for vulnerability, struggle, and routine within their dynamic.  There’s a moment involving a mother’s appearance that left me in tears, and not even because it’s this emotional revelation or dramatic instance. Its sublime subtlety summed up my love for this beautifully realized love story between three very damaged people. Two of them may live happily ever after, one might just play the role of nanny to their offspring.  The cycle continues.  The phantom of the past is there, and we can sow them into our breast pockets.  But we are forever entangled in those who are willing to stand by our side.  At one point, Alma says “No one can stand as long as I can,” determined and steadfast to love this man who is possibly incapable of loving someone back. Or can he?  Well, a man like him is bound to get hungry sooner or later.  

PHANTOM THREAD is a movie about a fractured relationship that probably was never meant to be healthy.  And yet that’s okay with them.  In fact they laugh through the sickness.  However, through that realization, comes acceptance.  There’s a moment involving the manifestation of a parent who has passed away, and soon thereafter, our protagonist is changed due to that interaction.  Nothing is spelled out to the audience, but there is familiarity in the idea of “needing someone.”  And well, what if that neediness becomes co-dependence?  Paul Thomas Anderson explored more of the fantastical, darkly comedic version that was completely his own when he penned PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE.  His latest, also one of his very best, takes a cue from Joseph Losey’s THE SERVANT mixed with a little bit of Hitchcock’s REBECCA, and fashions a beautifully intoxicating visual feast that invites the viewer to question the validity of connecting with another human being.

Our main character, Reynolds Woodcock, has preferred being alone due to routine and the fact that he remains devoted to his craft.  He’s married to creating dresses and making others look sublime.  There is beauty and grace in the earlier scenes where we see Woodcock as a fashion artist that is consumed with perfectionism.  However, he loves a good breakfast.  When he visits a diner one day and orders one hearty meal, he finds himself taken with a woman by the name of Alma.  At first, it seems as if he’s interested in turning her into a porcelain doll or simply a model for him to utilize for his work.  I was reminded of Stewart’s narcissism and obsession in the middle portion of VERTIGO.  There’s no denying that Woodcock is very much an egotist and even downright cruel to Alma as he points out her imperfections during her first fitting.  Accompanying them on this journey is Reynolds’ sister, who rarely has compassion for Alma, and instead, possesses another ugly form of co-dependency akin to his brother’s.  It’s clear that there is constant conflict among the three of them, which feels like an extension of the scenes in PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE between brother, sister, and potential love interest for Barry.  

However, the journey here is often full of uncomfortable silence, evil-eye glances, subtle body language, and intensely belligerent confrontation.  More often than not, I kept asking why Alma puts up with Reynolds or why Reynolds doesn’t just ultimately decide on being alone.  He’s borderline OCD and clearly struggles with some form of hypervigilance to where even when Alma butters her toast, he is visibly perturbed.  But like most of Anderson’s work, I was along for the ride and enjoyed being Jungian towards the characters.  One scene in particular highlighted why I found this to be a truly extraordinary love story.  It didn’t shy away from the idea of patterns, cycles, and even dependence as being innately human.  Beautifully so, in fact.   Woodcock becomes both debased and humble, accepting his place as the weaker sex inevitably by the end.  It’s important to note how they’re able to meet together in the first place.  Take a look at what Alma writes to Reynolds on his receipt after their first interaction.  Love creates some kind of “hunger” akin to sex, food, and parental-like attachment.  It all culminates with a pitch-perfect final line that clinched this as the best film of 2017 for me.  Anderson’s direction here is nothing short of sublime with cinematography that is full of soft fog and hidden shadows.  Faces are often half-lit and close-ups are more prevalent to experience intimacy at an uncomfortable level at times. There are not enough positive adjectives to describe the nearly endless loop of Johnny Greenwood’s impeccable throwback score, which was enough to give me goosebumps completely on its own.

The dialogue throughout made some audience members chuckle, potentially out of discomfort, or for the sheer fact that this is a pitch-black comedy for some. Day-Lewis’ moments of naivete and provocation, and ultimately acceptance, prove why he is one of the all-time great actors.  But truly, the star of the show is newcomer Vicki Krieps.  I had a sneaking suspicion early on that this would be more from the female perspective due to how the film opens on her, rather than Reynolds.  By the end, I wanted to applaud Anderson’s audacity once again to not provide easy explanation and just let this strong female character become the center of attention throughout.  We see her struggle more than Reynolds and by the end, we know precisely why they are sharing an arc.  Once you see how things play out, involving both food, cradling, coddling and why love is more often a messy affair, I think you will walk out feeling either elated or frustrated from the experience of sharing time with these two people.  Count me as one of the many that was elated and grateful for having gone on another journey with one of the all-time great filmmakers, accompanied by one of the all-time great actors.  This is a wonderfully eccentric masterpiece about why connection can harm, heal, and allow us to be defenseless creatures fully aware of our proclivities and idiosyncrasies when it comes to ourselves and the person we choose to share our lives with. Very few movies make me feel this alive and grateful to have loved and be loved. This is one of them.

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