Phantom Thread (US 2017)

The first meeting between Reynolds (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Alma (Vicky Krieps) in Robin Hood’s Bay

Phantom Thread is a film made by American money entirely in the UK (apart from some post-production). There are so many distinctive local features that it feels a little like those 1960s ‘British Hollywood’ features. It’s a Paul Thomas Anderson production (which he has written, directed and appears to have photographed himself – there is no photography credit) so we expect something distinctive and different. I purposely tried to forget anything I’d read beforehand (though I confess to looking out for the scene shot in Blackpool Tower Ballroom). I couldn’t work out why the characters might go to Blackpool and of course they don’t, but in an early scene there is a card or a painting of some kind in the background that might be a view of the Promenade and the Tower and later the ballroom stands in for The Albert Hall staging the New Year’s Eve Chelsea Arts Ball.

So, not knowing too much about what to expect, I missed most of the critical references I was supposed to see. I don’t think this is because I’m too stupid to spot them or that the film doesn’t necessarily conform to the critical consensus. Instead, I think I just got interested in different things and I possibly missed some key markers. I think also that Anderson perhaps didn’t realise how this British spectator would view the film. Let me say first that I enjoyed the film. How could I not enjoy three central performances of great skill and a sumptuously presented insight into the craft processes of haute couture?

Cyril (Lesley Manville) oversees work on a wedding dress at the ‘House of Woodcock’

The narrative offers us Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) who lives in a Mayfair town house servicing the demands of aristocratic patrons for wedding dresses and other haute couture costumes some time in the early 1950s. He lives with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) and a succession of live-in ‘girlfriends’ – young women who believe for a moment that they can disrupt the ordered bachelor world Reynolds has built around himself. After a particularly difficult work period, the latest of these young women is sent on her way (by Cyril)  and Reynolds drives to his country retreat – a large house with its own upstairs atelier. The country retreat appears to be in Yorkshire (but filmed in the Cotswolds) and Reynolds first stops at a hotel in Robin Hood’s Bay where he meets a young woman serving breakfast and is immediately smitten. This is Alma (Vicky Krieps) and a few days later he will take her back to London.

Alma models a gown

I can understand why Reynolds would find Alma bewitching. I was fascinated by her from the start. Her smile made me think of someone else I’d seen who I couldn’t place (later I discovered that she’d been in a French film I’d seen, but couldn’t remember). At first I thought Alma might be Irish, but a little later an incident suggests that she might be a European refugee and later still her surname sounds Northern European, possibly Nordic. The critical fraternity has latched onto the fact that Hitchcock was married to Alma Reville and this is cited as strong evidence that the film is meant to be a ‘gothic romance’ with Rebecca as just one of several filmic inspirations. Certainly Cyril at times seems very much in the Mrs Danvers mould, but others have referred to the young women who enter the ‘House of Woodcock’ as more akin to ‘Bluebeard’s wives’. James Bell writing in Sight and Sound (February 2018) discusses a range of filmic references. He mentions The Red Shoes (1948) and Anderson certainly appears to be a Powell & Pressburger fan. The link here is the Svengali-like figure of the ballet impresario Lermontov but the relationships are quite different in the two films. Anderson’s passion for David Lean is seemingly well-known and Lean’s The Passionate Friends (1949) is also quoted as an inspiration for Phantom Thread. I can’t remember the Lean film at all, but it does seem that two sequences in Anderson’s film are directly inspired by it (the Swiss hotel and the New Year’s Eve Arts Ball). Alongside Bell’s piece the website ‘Film School Rejects’ suggests the same links and adds some more – all of which Anderson seems to have alluded too. So, Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945) and P & P’s I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) are mentioned as well as several other Hitchcocks. For me, discussing Hitchcock and Powell together makes some sense but Lean is almost Powell’s opposite as a filmmaker (and was certainly seen as such during 1945-50). It turns out that Anderson’s interest in I Know Where I’m Going! is because there is a contrast between the wild landscapes and the characters trapped in ‘tiny rooms’. Well, yes there is – I wonder if Anderson knows that it is because the lead actors never went on location?

Reynolds finds Alma at the Chelsea Arts Club Ball

My point in mentioning all these references is that while fascinating, they don’t really help the average cinemagoer to make sense of the narrative – and several comments on IMDb (and others people have made to me) describe the film as ‘boring’. That’s a shame, but if you make a film with a narrative that is impenetrable for large swathes of the audience, you have a problem. I don’t think that Phantom Thread has the passion that Powell & Pressburger might have brought to the table or the disturbance that Hitchcock might have generated. Instead, Anderson offers us an intimate drama with wit and an element of fantasy and mystery that could have been developed further. The music by Jonny Greenwood and the sound design are both very effective and I always enjoy the ‘procedural’ elements of, in this case, haute couture. However, this kind of haute couture involves the British (and European) aristocracy in the 1950s as customers – a quite repellent bunch in many instances (which, to be fair, the story does deal with). Against this, at the beginning of the film, one of my favourite actors, Gina McKee, a miner’s daughter from Peterlee, appears as ‘Countess Henrietta Harding’. Gina seems to be having so much fun showing off a posh frock, it helped me to get through some of the excruciating scenes. I was reminded, however, of a film about fashion that I did enjoy very much, Coco avant Chanel (France 2009) with Audrey Tautou as the young Chanel – an insight into innovation in dress design. Despite the exquisite work of the seamstresses, I didn’t really like any of the clothes on show (which is not to blame the designer Mark Bridges who was trying to represent the designs of the times).

I did enjoy watching the film, but I think Anderson missed a trick by not making more of the landscapes in Yorkshire and Switzerland. I felt that the presentation was too restrained. More melodrama for me, more gothic and more passion. It has been reported that this could be the last feature for both Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis, at least for the moment. That would be a loss to contemporary cinema. I daresay Vicky Krieps will get interesting roles in the future and Lesley Manville will go from strength to strength. Here’s the trailer. It looks like all those things I want are here – but they are selected moments from a 130 mins narrative:

8 comments

  1. John Hall

    The Alma character reminded me very much of Greta Gerwig, particularly the Greta Gerwig of ‘Greenberg’, slightly gauche but very attractive and in the grasp of a self- absorbed and fairly abhorrent man. It was hard to place this film in any historical context possibly because the very rich and their hangers-on exist in a land outside time. Interestingly, as I was viewing this on Friday morning at the Square Chapel, in the adjacent Piece Hall Prince Charles and the fragrant Camilla, Duchess Of Cornwall, were doing a bit of a walkabout. It was hard not to draw comparisons.

    • Roy Stafford

      Yes, Alma does seem gauche at first. A little later when she cooks asparagus for Reynolds and deliberately (?) uses too much butter (having been warned by Cyril) I wondered if her discomfiture was as authentic as she seemed to suggest it was. If so, she has changed considerably by the end of the narrative. I read somewhere that originally Alma had a brother but that Anderson then decided to cut him out of the narrative. Her total lack of a back story seems like an important part of her character.

  2. shabanah fazal

    ‘a film with a narrative that is impenetrable for large swathes of the audience’ – spot on. I also very much enjoyed PT, but mostly because it draws you into film-reference hunting, which is also its central flaw. Unusually, I had to suggest even to friends with a sophisticated frame of reference that they first listen to Mark Kermode’s comprehensive review of its fairy tale elements before going to see it to get the most out of it.
    I too preferred the narrative when it took a Gothic turn, and loved the curiously shot demon car and references to the less obvious ‘My Cousin Rachel’. I was most captivated though by Alma’s ever darkening red dresses – from her initial pre-sexual buttoned up Little Red Riding Hood frock, to the more sensual décolleté gowns, to her later almost asexual, sinister, matronly look. That first dress also reminded me of fairy tale tropes used in Gainsborough melodramas for their heroines: in ‘Madonna of the Seven Moons’, the Little Red Cap look of teenage Maddalena (Phyllis Calvert), whose sexuality is brutally awakened by her violation in the forest – and in ‘They were Sisters’, the comical Little Bo Beep outfit of the hopelessly innocent Charlotte (Dulcie Gray), preyed on by James Mason’s big bad wolf anti-hero. I also agree that though the costumes were magnificent, it was hard to find them truly attractive, because of their dehumanising effect. Two stand out examples were the grotesquely matching Elizabeth I-inspired costumes made for different women but in contrasting colours – gowns so stiffly regal no living, breathing woman could actually wear them and be herself. Woodcock is the Pygmalion archetype, but ironically his costumes turn each woman into a lifeless icon, an impression reinforced by shots foregrounding blank, ghostly tailor’s dummies. On a related note, the opening title is startling similar to that of Scorsese’s ‘The Age of Innocence’. Day- Lewis’ portrait of an egotistical narcissist also subtly evoked for me his earlier role as that film’s hero Newland Archer, the more sympathetic, restrained 19th c New York society aesthete– maybe an embryonic form of the monstrous artist he becomes in PT.
    For anyone who missed it, there are some good insights in this article into why some might find the film difficult to engage with: the notion of PTA’s humanity as a director being ousted by a growing God-complex parallel to Woodcock’s: http://ew.com/article/2012/10/03/my-problem-with-p-t-andersons-films/ .
    I found it refreshing to see Mark Cousins also offering a dissenting critical view, pointing out how hard it was to like the film for its ‘indulgence of the [male] bully’. It saves women the tiresome job of having to remind everyone of the underlying strain of misogyny so endemic in films. As so often, we have to park that on a mental shelf or it would be impossible to engage with so many otherwise great films. And this one at least offers an intriguing exploration of the ways women gain a paradoxical power over egotistical men-children by becoming complicit in their control freakery.

    • Roy Stafford

      Interesting comments. I did intend to pursue the gender relations in the narrative in the light of the current debates but in the end I decided to use the space for a discussion of the critical response. I think that by the end of the narrative, Alma has established herself and has even gained the support of Cyril. I think if I watched the film a second time, I would try to think about Cyril much more.

      Your discussion of costume design in terms of mise en scène and symbolism puts me to shame. Why didn’t I focus on this? Perhaps it was because it didn’t feel like that was where my focus should be? The decision to shoot in an actual town house means that characters seemed to be endlessly moving up and down stairs and entering sparsely-furnished rooms. I should go back and look at the dresses you describe. How could I forget Daniel Day-Lewis in The Age of Innocence?

      Your description of the ‘demon car’ is interesting. It was a dark purplish red, I think – a Bristol model I’ve never seen before. I did think at the time that it seemed to be going too fast – as if the film had been speeded up. This could be a reminder of the carriage going to Dracula’s house in the original Nosferatu? And it was actually being driven towards Whitby? I’m getting carried away! But perhaps the film does deserve a second showing.

  3. keith1942

    The film looked great. I think the USA post-production was at FotoKem who, apparently, printed up the 35mm for release from a 35mm master. That accounts for the quality.
    I was less smitten with the story and characters. Anderson appears to be hooked on to obsessive characters and cults. he managed to make the 1950s high-end fashion world seem like a cult.
    I think the claimed references to Hitchcock and Powell/Pressburger are more about the critics’ tastes that the actual films. David Lean seems a more likely reference point: not just ‘The Passionate Friends, but also ‘Madeleine’ and ‘The Sound Barrier’.

  4. Michael Richards (certainline)

    None of the reviews of this visually stunning film mention that the central premise of the plot – the mushrooms bit (not to introduce any spoilers), especially the second mushroom bit – is completely ridiculous. These contrived plot turns spoil it for me, even though the photography, the acting and the characterisatioin are all superb.

    • Roy Stafford

      Thinking about it, the mushrooms relate to the fairytale narrative that Shabanah points to. They may also refer to Alma’s childhood in Eastern Europe where there would be more folk knowledge about the chemical properties of mushrooms?

  5. keith1942

    The mushrooms are, possibly, contrived. But this was the point for me where the film became really interesting. And they provide a tantalising aspect to the resolution.

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