Tuesday, January 30, 2018

In Theaters: PHANTOM THREAD (2017)

(US - 2017)

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville, Vicky Krieps, Gina McKee, Brian Gleeson, Camilla Rutherford, Harriet Sansom Harris, Julia Davis, Lujza Richter, George Glasgow, Nicholas Mander, Eric Sigmundsson, Emma Clandon. (R, 130 mins)

In the months leading up to the release of PHANTOM THREAD, Daniel Day-Lewis announced it would be his final film and that his retirement was effective immediately. If he's serious, and there's no reason to doubt him this time (he did announce his retirement following GANGS OF NEW YORK but was back three years later in the little-seen THE BALLAD OF JACK AND ROSE), then his second collaboration with his THERE WILL BE BLOOD writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson offers an appropriately masterful performance for his swan song. Day-Lewis is arguably the world's greatest living actor, with three Oscars and another three nominations, including one for this film, and that's a remarkable number for a guy who doesn't work all that much. PHANTOM THREAD is his first film since winning an Oscar for 2012's LINCOLN, and only his seventh in the last 20 years. He's an actor who's notorious for immersing himself in roles, embracing method acting in extreme ways, isolating himself from family and friends, demanding to be referred to by his character's name, and never breaking character for the duration of the shoot. That kind of dedication can be exhausting in the pursuit of one's art, and to an extent, Anderson fashions PHANTOM THREAD as a commentary on such commitment. Day-Lewis is Reynolds Woodcock, an erudite, in-demand fashion designer in post-war, 1950s London. He designs dresses for society's elite, up to and including royalty. He has obsessive routines and grows prickly and abrasive when they're intruded upon or deviated from in any way. And like any artist, he leaves a part of himself in his work, in the form of a word or phrase stitched inside the fabric.

He's also never gotten over the death of his mother (his favorite suit has a lock of her hair sewn inside the fabric near the breast pocket so she's always with him) and is only person he's close to is his cold, brittle, spinster sister Cyril (Mike Leigh regular Lesley Manville, also Oscar-nominated). Reynolds has a seemingly romantic companion in Johanna (Camilla Rutherford), but he's growing tired of her and wants her out of his house and out of his life, leaving the dirty work of dumping her to Cyril, who's used to handling this part of Reynolds' personal life. By chance, Reynolds meets a waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps) and is immediately taken with her. He invites her to dinner and has her model some dress designs. Reynolds impulsively moves Alma into the Woodcock house and she learns quickly that spontaneity and surprise are not his way of doing things. He all but shushes her at breakfast, annoyed at the noise she makes buttering her toast and declaring his morning tea ruined after she attempts to make conversation. She's advised against such future behavior by Cyril, who recommends "Perhaps you should take breakfast in your room." As time goes on, Reynolds grows tired of Alma like he has Johanna and all the others, but he underestimates her time and again. Unlike his past conquests, she sees through his manipulative mind games and knows how to counter him (on their first date, she informs him "If you want to have a staring contest with me, you will lose") and doesn't back down from his sneering and pithy insults (on her serving asparagus with butter instead of his preferred oil and salt: "Right now, I'm just admiring my own gallantry for eating it the way you've prepared it!"), which not only up-ends Reynolds' life, but also sends their relationship on an oddly perverse turn where its truest nature is not revealed until very late in the film.

It wouldn't take much tweaking to turn PHANTOM THREAD into a high-end, arthouse Lifetime movie. Reynolds is a narcissistic control freak of the highest order, and while it never quite ventures into "thriller" territory, there's a pervasive unease over the threat being possible and the general sense of the unknown over exactly where this is going. There's certainly an overt Hitchcockian element to the proceedings, from Cyril sort-of serving as the ever-present housekeeper Mrs. Danvers in REBECCA to the VERTIGO-like forced makeovers of Reynolds' women into his ideal vision of beauty to the mother fixation straight out of PSYCHO and even the name Alma, which was also the name of Mrs. Hitchcock. Anderson takes the relationship of Reynolds and Alma into a wholly unpredictable direction that ultimately puts all the pieces strewn throughout the film into place. The performances of the three leads are superb and just watching Day-Lewis at work is a privilege. Watch the little bits of nuance he adds to every look and every gesture. Watch the incredulous glare he shoots Alma when she points out that his instructions weren't clear--she talks back to him and his look is one of simultaneous rage and desire, and it's just a little silent moment that speaks volumes about Reynolds. Day-Lewis turned in one of cinema's all-time great performances for Anderson with THERE WILL BE BLOOD, and it's a shame they won't--for new--be collaborating on anything in the future. Much like the Woodcock siblings, PHANTOM THREAD can be cold and stand-offish, but it's a bit more instantly accessible than Anderson's brilliant but often impenetrable THE MASTER or his labyrinthine Thomas Pynchon adaptation INHERENT VICE, and like all Anderson films, PHANTOM THREAD is one that reveals more with each subsequent viewing. Functioning as his own cinematographer, Anderson works old-school, shooting on film and using BARRY LYNDON-esque natural lighting that gives PHANTOM THREAD a thoroughly natural aura that makes it look like something that was made 50 years ago. It's not quite THERE WILL BE BLOOD, but if indeed this is the last time we're seeing Daniel Day-Lewis onscreen, then he went out with a portrayal almost as indelible as BLOOD's Daniel Plainview or GANGS OF NEW YORK's Bill the Butcher. To whom is the torch passed? Is there another actor out there who's this good?

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