– “You have no breasts!”
– “I know.”
Just as a meticulously constructed dress hanging off of a barely-there porcelain skinned waif tells us very little of the struggle, abuse and prejudices of the fashion process and industry at large, PHANTOM THREAD is absolutely not what you will be expecting from those ghostly posters with pretty dresses on them.
Paul Thomas Anderson creates his world of details, precision, luxury and high-class, drawing us into the routines of a dictatorial designer with numerous women of different trades, employed to satisfy different purposes, at his disposal. Daniel Day Lewis plays (and plays him very well) the famous fashion designer Reynold Woodcock: a comically odd man solely concerned with his own pursuits as a genius of cloth-cutting, doted upon by all and reliant on his unmarried sister to run his busy life. He rises early, breakfasts in silence with his sister and muse-of-the-moment whilst sketching ideas, then gets to work. There is no room for spontaneity – his genius apparently relies upon this regiment. Once we are inside of this insular world, we wait for the ‘phantom’ to rear its ugly head and tear through the perfect picture. We want fabric torn from mannequins and the ugly truth beneath the luxurious overcoat exposed. A Lady Macbeth character? An evil housekeeper, manifest in the sister? Surely some sort of buried secret under all that polished finish? But it doesn’t come.
Instead of the classic sensationalist drama implied by not only the marketing but the constant classical references to melodramas, full of dramatic women characters, we are given suspense paid off with ridiculous domestic situations that are genuinely funny. About half way through, you begin to realise where you are, and it’s not where you thought you’d be.
Alma (Vicky Krieps) is snapped up by Reynolds when he realises she has the ‘perfect body’ for dress-making, during his rest period in the country. A clumsy waitress at a restaurant he frequents, the two are drawn to each other in a romantic meet reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Rebecca. Alma is then invited into the infamous House Of Woodcock (the actual townhouse) to take up her duties as lover and muse. We are told often, from Alma’s lips, that she loves him, and his cold treatment of her as an object is hurtful. She begins to test him, with tantrums, upsetting of his habits and a childish sort of role-play which is bizarre to watch: it’s almost like watching our fantasy of telling someone very famous and intimidating to sod off, or doing something embarrassing in front of your boss. We begin to wonder if the entire film is just making fun of the rules and regulations of the fashion industry, as well as the boredom of models with absolutely no creative agency in their work.
Immediately comparable for its subject, and style to some extent, is Nicolas Winding Refn’s THE NEON DEMON of last year, which tried to make a horror movie out of how cruel the fashion industry is, but did nothing other than show how superficial the film industry can be with its own image-obsessed self. The lack of self-awareness was obvious, and any real feeling that the film set up was undercut by a preference for good-looking visuals. The difference here is that Anderson knows the insightful extent he can take his fashion-themed film to whilst maintaining authenticity. The place that is happens to be in Reynold’s character – Alma’s character is given as much depth as the mannequin she is to her lover. For what does Anderson know about being an objectified model?
Although we aren’t given the melodramatic female character we were expecting, this solitary insight shouldn’t be disregarded: any careful human observation is worth seeing, and a possibility to learn from. The issue I would take here is that the insight is, once again, into a demographic of protagonist we know very well, and the conclusion we must draw is that the same stories about the same people are still being made, and that’s a critique on the climate rather than the passionate artist.
Anderson obviously dotes on his own muse and frequent collaborator Daniel Day Lewis, and this link between artists and subject is furthered in the allusion to Alfred Hitchcock and his wife-stroke-co-collaborator Alma, in his central characters’ names. The embedding of these postmodern subtexts into the story show that Anderson isn’t ashamed of his passion for sumptuous screen textures and colours, which occupy so much of his films’ energies, nor his heavy influence from the old school male ‘auteurs’ such as Hitchcock. He doesn’t shy away from his own position on the playing field of subject and object. But instead of paying off our narrative expectations of the relations between these characters, he instead makes a laugh-out-loud comedy making fun of how ridiculous domestic routines are, especially those routines upheld by people that take themselves very seriously. And it takes skill to write dialogue that funny.