Phantom Thread (2017)

Although the two principal characters do get married in this film, and there are certainly wedding dresses involved (for the lead character is a fashion designer), this isn’t really about marriage. It’s a relationship drama, though, and a rather twisted one at that, a three-way pull between Reynolds (Day-Lewis), his sister played by Lesley Manville, and a young woman who comes between them and tugs on Reynolds’ affections.


I was all ready to dismiss this film as yet another reworking of the eternal tropes of controlling older men and pliable younger women, an exercise in the manipulation of power dynamics via class, wealth, and the tedious tropes of masculine genius. After all, you can’t watch an awards contender, let alone a Paul Thomas Anderson film, without it being trailed in advance by untold reams of critical dissection that help you along to an opinion on a film you’ve not yet seen.

However, I think what I specifically like about it is the way that it moves from being one thing at the start — an idea of a handsomely mounted prestige costume drama (literally so: it’s about someone who makes clothes) — to something quite different by the end. To a certain extent this reflects the way the power dynamics shift, so that what starts as being about a controlling mercurial ‘genius’-like figure and the psychic toll you imagine he’ll inflict on this young ingenue-like woman, Alma (Vicky Krieps), to the way Alma starts to find power within their relationship and the way he starts to willingly submit to it, becomes really the heart of the piece.

There’s certainly something of Hitchcock to this story, as it seems to be about a man shaping a woman’s identity to his own needs (a hint of Vertigo), yet I think there’s a lot more care taken with the construction than that. For a start, Alma is really the key character here, the one who drives the film in ways that Day-Lewis’s fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock does not, for he is just a man. It’s quite fascinating the way she subsumes Reynolds’ gaze and turns his controlling behaviour back on him, to a certain extent. I won’t go into details, but I think the power dynamic (while clearly unequal) is very interestingly handled, and Lesley Manville as Reynolds’ sister Cyril/mother surrogate is a key to unpicking it. Everything, ultimately, seems to be bound up in that central metaphor of stitching and impermanence.

This isn’t all that’s going on, though. Every filmmaker at some point in their career (if they have one) will make a film about their own creativity, and this feels like that, with Reynolds being the director stand-in. He is, after all, very much just one person within an industry, and this industry relies on the labour of women, in particular. The scenes of the women arriving at the start, of his workers standing around in their smocks just quietly getting on with the work, and then when Reynolds falls ill near the end, the way they work all night on his (their) project are among the more magical sequences in the film, a sort of emotional backbone to his own fragility as an ‘artist’.

Along with its careful symbolism, Phantom Thread has the feel of classic in terms of the way it’s shot (by Anderson himself as far as I can tell, and what a lushly grainy look it has, especially on 35mm), and the period 50s fashions on display. It’s artfully studied, and that suits the story I think. Things resolve with a certain element of perversity, of wilful helplessness, articulated not least in the focus on eating. I’d not been a fan up until Inherent Vice, but I do believe Paul T. has entered the imperial phase of his filmmaking.

Phantom Thread film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Paul Thomas Anderson; Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho (35mm), London, Monday 5 February 2018 (and most recently on 70mm at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Sunday 5 January 2020).

Two Recent Period Films: A Most Violent Year and Inherent Vice (both 2014)

Two films that I’ve seen in the last week have a sort of complementary quality, as they are both films set in the United States at either end of the 1970s and at either edge of the country, charting a marked social decline and dealing broadly with the creeping corruption of deeply-held ideals. Inherent Vice is set in 1970, and is a broadly-comic meandering Los Angeles-based story focused on stoner detective Larry ‘Doc’ Martello (Joaquin Phoenix), while A Most Violent Year has its principled entrepreneur Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) try to grow his business in the New York City of 1981.

Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac in A Most Violent Year

I like both very much, though I suspect that aspects of the narrative construction will turn off some viewers. Both can be frustrating, albeit in slightly different ways. J.C. Chandor’s New York-set film is one of underlit interiors and slow-build dramatic tension, as Abel tries to get financing for a property deal that will give his company a platform to grow, while trying to figure out who is sabotaging his attempts. It’s a film with a canny sense of space, largely charting a series of offices and homes where Morales and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) broker deals and balance books. There’s only a small amount of kinetic action: the drama is in the deals, and for a film quite so obsessed with Morales’s company accounts, it generates plenty of tension. Bradford Young’s understated cinematography gains maximum effect from the ever-popular yellowish sepia-toned filters that impart a nostalgic quality (while expertly blocking shots of the city’s skyline to occlude where the Twin Towers would be).

Ostensibly quite different in look and tone, Inherent Vice also builds slowly, but in a more novelistic way (befitting its source text) — a patchwork of characters and motivations that can overload the viewer. Those for whom plot details are important may be turned off by the excess of them, but in that respect it’s not unlike similarly overplotted gumshoe stories as The Big Sleep (1946). The setting and look, not to mention that paranoid West Coast vibe, bring to mind another Chandler point of reference in The Long Goodbye (1973). Cinematographer Robert Elswit has done a terrific job in replicating a lot of that earlier film’s feel, using celluloid stock to gorgeous effect. It’s the visual equivalent of a vinyl record — I’ll stop short of hymning any richer ‘authenticity’ (because I have little truck with those kinds of arguments), but it definitely imparts a quite different feel from the digitally-shot Violent Year.

Right now, I might as well go ahead and admit something controversial amongst critics, which is that I’ve never been much of a fan of auteur Paul Thomas Anderson and his massively overpraised films. Sure they’re well-crafted, but I’ve felt a hollowness of over-eager self-congratulatory intent from The Master and There Will Be Blood in particular; I’ve not hated either, but I’ve stopped short of embracing them. Indeed, at the end of last year, I was all ready to write a bit of anti-PTA clickbait in the run-up to this most recent opus. And yet, well, here we are, and I really liked Inherent Vice. It’s been getting a bit of a kicking from some quarters that feels entirely undeserved. It’s a mood piece, of hippy idealism being quietly subverted by forces of governmental conformism and the unscrupulousness of capitalist property developers. Mental health wellness institutions, massage parlours, office blocks and Aryan thugs are all brought into the picture to complicate the pot-addled simplicity of Doc’s lifestyle, and Phoenix is frequently called upon to express wide-eyed confusion at unfolding developments (not unlike the audience).

Spending time watching Inherent Vice is to immerse oneself in a world, an evocation of this most perplexing of American cities that can stand alongside Chinatown (another film touching on civic corruption). There’s no shortage of cameos for famous actors, but all are in service of the film’s period atmosphere and subtly comic timing. It’s even got me thinking, for the first time ever, that maybe I should reconsider Anderson’s oeuvre.


A Most Violent Year film posterA Most Violent Year (2014)
Director/Writer J.C. Chandor; Cinematographer Bradford Young; Starring Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, David Oyelowo; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Haymarket, London, Thursday 29 January 2015.

 

 

Inherent Vice film posterInherent Vice (2014)
Director/Writer Paul Thomas Anderson (based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon); Cinematographer Robert Elswit; Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Joanna Newsom; Length 149 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Thursday 5 February 2015.