Movie Review: Phantom Thread (2017)
Why does Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) acquiesce to the poison in the end? I assume that's the question everyone asks as they leave the theater. And acquiesce so enthusiastically? With more love than he’s shown throughout? Is it that? Poison is his avenue to weakness and weakness is his avenue to love? Or is it subtler? He’s a control freak and this is a way to give up control for a time. It's a vacation. He gets sick to go on vacation from his awful self.
Even before the poisonings began, I got a whiff of the serial killer amid the movie’s stifled beauty. Woodcock, a 1950s haute couture fashion designer, takes Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress, for a ride in his Bristol 404 sports car in the British countryside at night, and for a second I flashed on Alex and his droogs doing the same in Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange.” (Did Paul Thomas Anderson intend this?) Later, Woodcock peeks through a peephole at how his fashion show is doing, or how Alma is doing in it, and I flashed on Norman Bates doing the same with an undressing Marion Crane in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” (I know PTA intended that.)
Beyond these allusions, there’s just a quiet, insinuating creepiness throughout. How a dinner date with a gentle, handsome fashion designer turns into something else. How quickly his questions turn to directives. He’s not interested in who she is but in what she’ll become. What he can make her become. She’s fabric he can stitch into something beautiful.
See? Right there. It doesn’t take much to push the story into serial killer realm. Particularly with Woodcock’s sister, Cyril (Leslie Manville), sitting cold-eyed on the attic couch while Alma disrobes and measurements are taken.
Then Alma flips the tables. She turns “Psycho” into “Misery.”
We saw what happened to Alma’s predecessor. She disturbed the careful quiet of breakfast with her questions, the proffer of rolls, the uncareful buttering of toast. She’s gone without a second thought.
But what attracts Reynolds to Alma? Her clumsiness? The sense that there’s something prettier behind the waitress garb? That she doesn’t question him—or that she does?
Woodcock brings up death himself. “There’s an air of quiet death in this house,” he says. He talks about secrets. “When I was a boy I started to hide things in the linings of the garments; things that only I knew were there. Secrets.” I’m not sure the meaning of this but I love the way Day-Lewis says it.
From the trailer, and for much of the film, I assumed Woodcock was gay, and closeted, and miserable, but maybe he’s just miserable. As in SOB. He forces his exactitude on the world and it’s never enough. He’s insufferable. Alma cooks him asparagus in butter rather than oil, and he says, “I’m admiring my own gallantry for eating it the way you prepared it.” In the middle of his day, in the middle of his creative process, she brings him tea he didn’t ask for, and they argue. Upset, she leaves with the tea. “The tea is going out,“ he calls after her, ”but the interruption is staying right here with me!”
Confession: I identified with that line. Completely. Even as I was writing this review, which is hardly haute couture, my wife came down the hallway talking of a friend’s house-hunting difficulties and I just stared at her with that “in the middle of something” look until she left. In any creative process, there's that selfish need to stay inside your own head. And the less you can concentrate, the worse you act. When my wife is working on graphic design, you can play a John Philip Sousa march behind her and she won’t blink. She’s DiMaggio at the plate, Marshawn Lynch with the football. I call her “Beast Mode.” I envy her.
The tea is going out, but the interruption is staying right here with me. Even his one-liners are perfection.
What makes Cyril align with Alma? I haven’t figured that out. The predecessor she viewed with cold eyes, but somehow Alma wins her over. Maybe she’s just sick of Reynolds. Maybe I’ll have to see the movie again.
Most people wouldn’t want to return to that stuffy house, but PTA’s movies win me over. There’s a density to them. His movies feel beyond flickering images; they're palpable. Daniel Day-Lewis’ precise Reynolds Woodcock is heavier than all the CGI monsters in the world.
Ah, but his endings. He has so much trouble; he’s the anti-Hitchcock there. Yet for all your puzzlement as you leave the theater, debating why Woodcock does it, this may be one of his better endings. “I’m a confirmed bachelor,” Reynolds says at one point. “I’m incurable.” But Alma finds the cure.