“Phantom Thread”: Paul Thomas Anderson mesmerizies us with female treachery in the 50s couture world (how to use emetics to find a husband)

You expect big visionary and concurrently intimate drama from Paul Thomas Anderson (“There Will Be Blood“), but “Phantom Thread” turns out, for me at least, to become a set piece, a mood inducement, almost a stage play, only gradually evolving into mystery and treachery.

The film is set in the couture world of London in the mid 1950s, and mainly stays inside. But the story of a growing love affair between a confirmed bachelor dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (a gaunt Daniel Day-Lewis) and a waitress, Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps), who early on asks him why he isn’t married.  He’s not gay (that would have been interesting, a few years after Alan Turing’s end); he really is set in his ways and the details of his work.  He says he can hide his life story with inner threads in his garments. But she is set in her ways too.

The business seems to reside in his mansion of a flat, with a number of employees, whom Cyril (Lesley Manville) manages, often speaking with great firmness and clarity. The film shows with fascinating detail how dressmaking got done in those days, down to the taking of measurements. You see how prudish earlier dress standards used to be, down to long-stockings and garters for men (oh, going bald on the legs anyway). I recalled a day when my parents took me to Schwarz in Baltimore to be fitted for a boy’s suit and I got stuck by pins all day. I was also reminded of the film “LBJ” where the president talks about his tailor, how he can have a sartorial emergency.  Remember the boon of English literature courses, Thomas Carlyle’s “Sartor Resartus“.

Reynolds resents changing his ways, as with the way she prepares his meals.  One day, in the middle of a work session preparing a wedding gown for a princess from Belgium (OK, the movie didn’t have a role for Timo Descamps, the singer who is practically the country’s and maybe the surviving EU’s best face), he starts ranting about the work and suddenly collapses, and soon vomits as if he had the flu (like George Bush when he visited Japan in 1992).  But Alma has given him some questionable wild mushrooms.  Now she has a chance to care for him, as he resists attention from “the good doctor” (Brian Gleeson) out of fear of romantic rivalry.

He recovers, and proposes to her.  Her Hitchcockian ruse has worked. They go to a New Year’s party at a Swiss chalet and he slips into his introverted ways again, although the indoor balloon and costume celebration (with elephants) provides some of the best photography of the film (which is shot in standard aspect in order to maximize facial closeups). So, she soon tries her trick again with his omelette.  We are treated to an intimate scene where he is eager to kiss her while holding a vomit bowl in his lap.  He seems to accept the need to become weak and vulnerable as the ticket to having children and a progeny. It seems like a rather corrupt value system, which drives some men away from heterosexuality, even “Masters and Johnson”.

The background music, of piano and chamber ensembles, is fascinating.  It was put together by composer Jonny Greenwood.  The opening arpeggio-like piano stuff may come from Debussy, and later Schubert’s monumental E-flat Piano Trio is quoted. But the most fascinating music, used in the previews, occurs before the first “illness” sequence: the piano plays repeated notes, in an ascending sequence, with odd impressionistic harmonies, with rhythm that sounds like syncopated 5/4 time.  I think I’ve heard the theme before, and wondered if it was by one of NYC’s Metropolis Ensemble composers, but it may be original with Greenwood.  If so, it certainly belongs in some larger chamber work that would get concert performance (maybe at DC’s Dumbarton series).

I did wonder how people with eating disorders would feel about this film.

Another film to remember for comparison is “The September Issue” (2009), or even “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006) with Meryl Streep.

Wikipedia Haute-couture show.

The theater offered a short film from “Made 2 Measure Haute Couture“, “Thom Browne: A Fashion Fairytale“, just before the previews.

(Embed from M2M was removed because it caused a popup; I’ve put the YouTube embed there instead)


Name: Phantom Thread
Director, writer:  Paul Thomas Anderson
Released:  2017/12/31
Format:  1.85:1 (heavy emphasis on closeups)
When and how viewed:  Angelika Mosaic, Fairfax VA, 2018/1/23, 10 PM, small audience
Length:  130
Rating:  R  (language)
Companies:  Focus Features, Annapurna
Link:  official

(Posted: Wednesday, January 24, 2018 at 2 P< EST)

One thought on ““Phantom Thread”: Paul Thomas Anderson mesmerizies us with female treachery in the 50s couture world (how to use emetics to find a husband)”

  1. The M2M video embedded here apparently causes Microsoft Edge in W10 to throw a popup blocker warning. It seems to want access to the M2M Facebook app. It doesn’t happen in Chrome. It also happened in Firefox, and on my iPhone in Safari. If you play a film from the site I linked to, you may get a popup.

    (Update:) OK, I “gave in” and put in the YouTube embed for the short film instead of M2M’s own. The popup, which tries to get you to log on to Facebook and M2M’s page, goes away. You can put a M2M clothes fitting app on your iPhone from the Facebook page if you like.

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