Food for Eyes and Thought

Film review: Phantom Thread (Director: Paul Thomas Anderson)

By Sascha Krieger

Breakfast. It used to be regarded as the day’s most important meal. Andy while experts have long denied it, for many people a good and harmonious breakfast is still a key ingredient in starting the day right. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s Oscars candidate Phantom Thread, it is perhaps the most important plot element. When the current love interest and muse of celebrated 1950s London couturier Reynolds Woodcock offers his the wrong bakery, she gets thrown out of his life and house. When waitress Alma holds her own and smiles steadfastly in the face of an excessive breakfast order, she enters his life forcefully. And when he explodes at her buttering her toast to noisily, their relationship changes dramatically. Woodcock is a man of many and inflexible rules, his life carefully structured. He knows what he wants and needs and that’s basically for everybody to conform to his whims and regulations. Alma poses a threat: she questions his rules, subverts them, stubbornly insists he meet her at eye level. There is only one person in his life who has done this: his sister Cyril on whom he relies in everything. When she checks him and tells him quietly he wouldn’t survive a fight with her, he gives in.

This, one assumes, has been hard-fought, a fight Alma still needs to face. Luxembourg actor Vicky Krieps plays her with mesmerising understatement, allowing her awake eyes, her subtle smile, her ability to harden almost imperceptibly to do the talking. With this, she more than holds her own to acting legend Daniel Day-Lewis in what he says will be his final film, who plays Woodcock with quiet resolve, a master of the passive aggressive, but also a driven creator, someone who has built himself his own reality that makes him succeed but that must not change. Lesley Manville, awarded with an Oscar nomination, as was Day-Lewis but, almost scandalously, not Krieps, is a surprisingly complex Cyril, hard, relentless, strict, but also emancipated, willing to stand up to her brother and quietly empathetic. An accomplice, an aide, but an actor in her own right, too.

Driven by a wonderfully suggestive soundtrack by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, romantically nostalgic but also full of hidden threats and subtle turns, the film embarks on a quiet flow between two sensual poles: On the one side, the tactile beauty of elegant fabric, the camera feasting on its flows and creases, the slight touch of hand to create beauty, a hermetic, self-sufficuient art, the realm of a reclusive autocrat. On the other, food, easting, a basic life function, sustaining, somewhat crude, loud, life’s enjoyment and affirmation, a connecting force to the wider world. Elegant images capture the sensual warfare between the two sides as well as the cold distant imposed by society, expectations and an ego that has constructed a world around it. Alma’s attempts to crash the shield fail, fail again, fail better, to paraphrase Samuel Beckett. But she tries again, changes tactics, and so the marriage drama turns quietly into a domestic thriller that has reminded some of Hitchcock’s Rebecca.

Phantom Thread is a film about power. Being clearly placed initially, it starts shifting, moving from one side to the other. And with it perspectives change, the viewer’s first and foremost. Certainties are constructed and challenged, images of the protagonists solidified and then, suddenly, in a second and the moist unspectacular of ways, collapsed. A look, a flick of the hand, a movement of the head can be enough to implode a world. Paul Thomas Anderson pursues his many plot twists and power changes without any disruptive turning points. The ebbing and flooding is a natural movement, a flow in which camera, light, music, narrative pace and acting performances focussing on the most subtle of changes all come together in a perfectly constructed piece of art. The human desire to control – one’s own life and those in it – is transformed into a poetic flow that clashes with other’s identical as well as contradicting desires. Woodcock’s gradual submission is as fragile, volatile and morally ambivalent as Alma’s emancipation. Nonetheless, it is the women who more and more take over, whose perspectives move to the forefront and who the viewer’s glance is increasingly pointed at. Phantom Thread is a poetic, song-like, rhythmically astute film about power and its resistance to closeness – fascinatingly filmed and acted, atmospherically intense, full of surprises, subtle and ambivalent. Food for eyes and thought equally.

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