My mind has been like one of those old school oscillating fans, that constantly over works itself on a sweltering summer day. All the levers and gears in my mind all in synchronized motion as I find myself thinking about Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent film, PHANTOM THREAD. When I initially viewed it, I didn’t know what to make of it. I’ve seen THERE WILL BE BLOOD, THE MASTER, PUNCH DRUNK LOVE, and MAGNOLIA, yet this one feels different. So what better way to sort out my feelings on the matter, as my modus of operandi always lands in writing it out in words.
PHANTOM THREAD is a 50’s period piece set in London, where Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis) is a notorious, fashionable dress designer, one who obsessively eats, and breathes what he does. Nothing else comes close to his work until, he takes a quick trip to the country side to recharge his batteries. He meets Alma (Vicky Criceps), a waitress who takes his very lengthy breakfast order and from that point forward, becomes his muse, his wife, his life partner who understands him better than he does himself.
And there’s one scene in particular, that highlights a peculiar quality in Alma, where they’re walking along the beach holding hands and she says to Woodchock, “Whatever you do, do it carefully.” Honestly, for a split second, I thought of the famous line from BREAKING BAD, where Heisenberg says, “Tread lightly.” It totally sounds like she softly threatening him, in her own bizarre way. Alma is the buffer between Woodcock and his work, like those annoying traffic cones that caution you about slowing down when construction is being done. I’m deeply intrigued this characteristic because there’s nothing wrong with slowing down, what’s disturbing is the method she uses to enforce that trait.
On another note, my reaction to PHANTOM THREAD was very similar to my reaction of watching Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS for the very first time; stoic expression, minor headache, and a lengthy walk to contemplate what the hell just happened. At first I resisted falling for it’s cinematic splendor, and yet somehow subtle moments slithered into my psyche like faint whispers of an unknown ghost. And, well four days later the a-ha moment hits me while cooking up some pasta on a Tuesday night. Go figure. And for those of you who haven’t seen it yet, RUN. (joking, WATCH both SOLARIS and PHANTOM THREAD back to back, it’ll be good for you.)
On a serious note, for those of you who have seen PHANTOM THREAD, isn’t it interesting how the importance of food shapes the story? My mind keeps reeling back to that final sequence, which is the most potent of all, where Alma is cooking Reynolds’ dinner, and the subtlety of each movement is brilliantly blocked by these two wicked lovers. It’s like a telepathic dance and the power rides heavily on body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. Because what happens to the delicate veneer of this film takes a massive subversive dark turn, in the most seamless way, and if you’re not paying close attention, in the blink of an eye you miss it. And Woodcock’s reaction is the most horrifying part. Cue in jaw drop. This film swept me off my feet and it took me days to realize this!?
Here’s how it happened. Hang with me on how I use an analogy to explain my weird thinking. For instance, a chef gathering ingredients for a recipe is what one needs to cultivate a distinguished, delicious, meal where all the flavors compliment each other. One wrong ingredient or mixture and you fuck up the entire entrée. This applies to varying arts; photography, painting, filmmaking, orchestrating a symphony for the Queen, sculpting, synchronized swimming, I mean the list goes on and on. Perfection is everything to most successful masters of the arts, and for Woodcock, every seam and thread must be sewn to perfection. His idiosyncrasies for a structured routine especially presented in the mornings, where having a quiet breakfast is essentially mandatory while he sketches and anything that unpins him from that, destroys his day.And Alma, goes to an unconventional extreme level, to love Woodcock in her own way, and anyone who tells her otherwise does not stop her at all. Bold, triumphant, move! A woman who believes in herself and her way of love conquers all. Whoops did I spoil it? She outsmarts him, and probably even the audience, I mean I was dumbfounded.
And, I suspect some if not most progressive feminists, detested Alma’s character for spending her life catering to one man’s needs. Pathetic, right? Or is it? What’s so incredibly ironic about that is she’s gone 30 steps further to knock this guy down a few pegs. She’s putting his ego in check and he falls in love with her for it. I won’t give away how she does it, but it definitely borders along the lines of attempted murder. It’s psychotically genius and the most subversive romance film that’s sprinkled it’s twisty, dark, phantom vibes, making me tingle all over. Part of me sees the horror in Alma’s actions, she deems as love all suspended by a zealous soundtrack that has an obeisance to the classic melodrama of the old Hollywood era. Swoony, poignant, and very effectively layered with the oh’s and ah’s of London back in the 1950s, where you had luxurious cars, gorgeous fashion, decadent food, and high society life. Not much has changed with the exception of things looking differently these days. Subjectively, perception might be a bit skewered, but STILL.
Alas, the story of love thrives in its own idiosyncratic way such as Anderson’s PUNCH DRUNK LOVE, however, this one has an intricate, attentive suspense to it, where tension overrides rationality. It’s like the heart hijacking the brain, and all the endorphins come out to play, uniting Woodcock and Reynolds, contrary to their somewhat deadly love play. There are times, various scenes feel like you’re watching a staged play, especially when Alma gets Woodcock’s asparagus all wrong, knowingly he likes it a specific way. Tempers flare but it was phenomenal.
PHANTOM THREAD is a prime example of taking a conventional romance story into a very mind bending, unconventional direction and I applaud Paul Thomas Anderson for that endeavor. It’s unique, bold, troubling, yet very elegant to watch how it unfolds, layer by layer. There’s something about it that certainly stigmatizes the mind, embroidering the various patterns, choices, sacrifices, and directions we make in life to obtain love.
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