Review: Phantom Thread
I’m a born self-spoiler, so it’s rare that I should manage to sit down to watch a film without having read up ahead of time. For once though, in the run-up to the release of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, I managed to keep my sticky little paws off the reviews. It was a conscious act, requiring what felt like super-human self-restraint, but it was made easier by the corresponding restraint of the film’s trailer. It seems to show so little, holding so much back like a dam. I decided I didn’t want to cheat myself out of watching the dam burst, letting the film crash over me in a great wave.
But the crash of that imagined wave never came. I’d been imagining, thanks to the anxious soundtrack of the trailer, a plot that ends in death and destruction, needles piercing eyes, Oedipus-style. The Oedipus thing may not have been totally off the mark - Day-Lewis’s Reynolds Woodcock certainly has major mummy issues - but there are no gouged eyes, no great fall, no roaring climax. A great wave would have been easier to see coming. Instead, Phantom Thread ebbs and flows, its calm surface belying rip-tides swirling beneath.
At first, it looks like Pygmalion - Daniel Day-Lewis’ Reynolds Woodcock is a wealthy, upper-class couturier who falls in love with Vicky Krieps’ Alma, a beautiful waitress to whom he tries to teach ‘good taste’. Then the tide turns, and it seems to become something more akin to Rebecca - the House Of Woodcock is overseen by Reynolds’ elder sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), who holds the business and her brother in a vice-grip, and who resents the beauty and gauche nonchalance of a newcomer. It hints at being a psychological thriller, a portrait of an abusive relationship, an exploration of a curse. It’s all those things and none of them. Mostly, it’s a love story.
And that’s the most beguiling and bemusing part of all. The relationship between Reynolds and Alma should be anything but aspirational. He’s cold and self-centred to the point of cruelty, and she’s not wallflower enough to survive the pairing unscathed. Nonetheless, despite the Woodcock’s chill demeanours, there’s so much that’s warm and inviting about their lives together. Sumptuous fabrics are dyed soft plum tones, and breakfast tables are piled high with pastries. When Reynolds does concede a little power, loosening his grip on his own ways to succumb to Alma’s, there’s a real tenderness there.
As if that wasn’t all confusing enough on its own, Jonny Greenwood’s Oscar-nominated score muddies the waters even more. In part, it’s anxious and sparse, syncopated to throw you off balance, and elsewhere it’s lush and comforting as a winter’s day spent in front of a log fire. Just when you think things have taken a turn for the worse, a tinkling piano refrain chimes a return to romanticism. It’s simultaneously comforting and totally, wildly bewildering.
The same goes for the sound design, heightens each and every sound so that the viewer experiences the same neurotic misophonia as Reynolds. Even the way Alma butters her toast is wrong - every scrape, every drop, every clatter of cutlery is overwhelming to him. But what’s unbearable to Reynolds is bewitching to me. After all, what more homely sound is there than the one made by a knife smoothing butter over morning toast? Reynolds might have hated it, but it made me hungry.
And speaking of hungry, when was the last time poison made your mouth water? Mine was two nights ago, watching the preparation of a poisoned mushroom omelette, shrooms frying in sizzling yellow butter, framed in a food-porn close-up. The cook glows with a deadly-calm maternalistic love, willing her subject to give in to the deliciousness and eat up. In that moment she’s the embodiment of the spirit of the film - love looks like hate in Phantom Thread, romance like cruelty, poison like nourishment, and a life-line like poison. It’s a testament to the intoxicating power of the film that after the credits rolled I went home and made myself an omelette dripping in butter.
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