Phantom Thread (2017)

*. A good movie. But did there need to be this much of it?
*. A couturier goes through women like the bolts of cloth he makes into high fashion. Obsessed with order, he is a control freak. One day, in-between lovers/muses/hired help, he finds a new girl who will, as the saying goes, do. She, however, turns out to be more than he bargained for, being every bit as much of a controlling personality. Though she upsets him at first, in the end he not only accepts her but learns to enjoy being dominated. No longer his muse or lover she has become his mother and he her hungry boy.
*. There’s something asexual about such relationships, and that’s lightly touched upon here. When asked why he isn’t married Reynolds replies only that “I make dresses.” This could mean that his profession/calling comes first, or it could be hinting at something else. Not so much that he’s possibly homosexual (there’s no evidence for this) but that he has no sexuality, or that he’s pre- or postsexual. It can only be deliberate that we never see him kiss Alma until the very end, when he has become a patient/child to be nursed, without any virility.
*. As a psychological portrait of a certain kind of relationship it’s entirely convincing. The bond that Reynolds and Alma share is one that’s far more common than perhaps many people allow. Alma is alert to Reynolds’s real needs: she learns on a first date of his mother fixation and can hardly miss the role played by Cyril, the live-in sister. He just has to be made to accept what he is and she’ll take care of him. I can say I’ve known many such couples, and Reynolds and Alma, if they were real, would be far from the most extreme example of the type I’ve seen.
*. It’s not surprising that the movies Phantom Thread most reminded me of were horror films or thrillers that took similar ideas of toxic codependency to their nightmarish conclusions. Think Fatal Attraction, or Misery, or Bitter Moon. They’ve really just taken a similar situation to those psychological thrillers and glamorized it.
*. Speaking of other movies that might have provided inspiration, am I wrong in seeing Women in Love lurking somewhere behind the alpine skiing holiday? I can’t think of any other reason why that brief scene would be in here. Surely the struggle for mastery between Reynolds and Alma draws something from that between Gerald and Gudrun in that film.
*. I think it’s a good script, introducing leitmotifs that stitch together the main themes. Hunger, for example. Or the question of sincerity, which everyone pays lip service to even as they admit they’re all playing games. That is, not quite behaving in a grown-up way.
*. On the negative side of the ledger, it does go on a bit long for what is a very simple tale. It’s nicely done, in a pretty way that I suspect was being arch some of the time. Even the designer’s name, Woodcock, seems to have been a joke. The triumvirate cast — Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, and Lesley Manville — are all very good at working with their eyes, since there’s always more going on than they are expressing verbally. I find Paul Thomas Anderson can be given to meticulous doodling and shapelessness, but here he seems mostly on point. I liked the film.
*. Do I want to see it again though? Not anytime soon. For all its evident craftsmanship I didn’t get the sense that there was anything deeper going on or more to uncover. It’s both subtle and superficial at the same time. Well done, but even though it cultivates restraint I felt it needed more bite to go with its evocation of haute perversity and emotional hunger.

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