Film Review: Phantom Thread

The mystery of artistic creation—in this case, high-fashion gowns—is pretentiously probed here by Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis in a too self-conscious and somewhat enervative style.
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The golden age of haute couture—that most rarefied and costly of fashion, requiring dozens of seamstresses toiling over one dress for a small eternity, to be sold at a prohibitive cost to only the most wealthy—reached its peak in the 1950s. Holding sway over this most exclusive of butterfly worlds were genius designers like Christian Dior, Jacques Fath, Pierre Balmain, Hubert de Givenchy and the two acknowledged innovative masters of this art, wild and crazy Charles James, whose sculptural gowns were complexly structured so as to be practically architecture, and sober, discreet Cristobal Balenciaga, whose wildly coveted clothes reflected the quiet elegance and deceptive simplicity of the man himself.

There really has never been a film dealing with this subject and period… until now. In tackling it, appropriate names like Vincente Minnelli or Pedro Almodóvar or even Tom Ford might spring to mind, so it is all the more surprising that Paul Thomas Anderson, a director more known for gritty subjects as in Boogie Nights, Inherent Vice and There Will Be Blood, has undertaken the task. Supposedly inspired by the need to do something “fancy,” he’s said, after Inherent Vice, as well as a spate of illness during which he was faced with the novelty of his wife suddenly being in charge of him while he steeped himself in fashion publications, Anderson approaches his theme with a well-researched reverence. This quality is shared by his star, Daniel Day-Lewis, who has revealed that he even learned to sew for the role of eminent, eminently difficult and temperamental designer Reynolds Woodcock and, at a recent Q&A after a screening, was dropping obscure fashion designer names like Victor Stiebel as if he were Anna Wintour.

Woodcock is, to put it mildly, very set in his ways, something that his devoted if too-present sister and lifelong business partner, Cyril (Lesley Manville), has learned to live with, however much it may chafe. Almost the very definition of stuffy Englishman and then some, Woodcock insists on his idea of perfection in everything, whether it’s his lavish garments or the level of noise he can abide at breakfast (i.e., none), and his Paris workspace and home are beyond pristine in their excruciatingly ordered refinement. Woodcock is both obsessed and subsumed by his work, with something of a fanatic’s reluctance to even let a dress leave his salon, although bought and paid for.

One of the most diverting scenes involves a deeply neurotic heiress (think Barbara Hutton), played to a quiveringly neurotic fare-thee-well by stage treasure Harriet Harris, whom Woodcock rages against as being “unfit” to wear a gown of his. He conspires with a loyal cohort to invade her bedroom and literally remove said dress as its wearer lies in a drunken stupor. This episode was obviously inspired by the antics of Charles James, who would actually deprive his clients of their rightful couture if he felt the fit was less than perfect, for a myriad of reasons.

Thanks to Harris, this is also one of the few divertingly funny moments in the film, which  goes the opposite route of Robert Altman’s silly piffle of a fashion film, Ready-to-Wear, with a surfeit of awestruck seriousness, as if it were conceived by Woodcock himself.  Although elegant to look at, with a very fancy music score by Johnny Greenwood, there’s a sterility to it, due to the very limited “tasteful” palette Anderson has allowed himself—mostly black, muted grays and blinding white. Woodcock’s designer creations follow suit, which is fashionista revisionist history, for the grand couturiers were all famed for their vivid and flamboyant sense of color. This is Anderson’s first film set outside the U.S. and his direction feels too tight and restrained overall. At over two hours, not much really happens, apart from the arrival into Woodcock’s life of that aforementioned accomplice in theft, Alma (Vicky Krieps, who does bring some welcome slyness and surprise), a young immigrant waitress he meets in a café one night and becomes fascinated with, to the point where she moves in and joins his firm. The reactions to her over the years—for both women are into Woodcock for the long haul—from the jealous, possessive spinster Cyril provide the main drama in the movie.

Although Day-Lewis and the quite wonderful Manville, in what could be described as the “Mrs. Danvers” role, score a lot of giggles through their constant sibling warfare, the film feels severely underpopulated and repetitive (with too many shots of Day-Lewis, like a very calm and purposeful mad scientist in the salon which is his lab, sketching or measuring laid-out patterns to be cut in the snowy, immaculate muslin which is his vital tool). Anderson’s unfamiliarity with fashion unfortunately reveals itself in the Woodcock creations provided by his film’s designer, Mark Bridges, which are unmemorable, more costume-y than actual hyper-refined clothing.

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