Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread and the Sins of the Artist

It's good to have Daniel Day-Lewis back on screen again, even if his character spends much of the movie glowering and acting peevish. Day-Lewis plays the 1950s English couture costume designer, Reynolds Woodcock, a man with a preternatural talent for fashioning exquisite dresses for princesses. I was happy to see how director/writer Paul Thomas Anderson has moved on from the execrable hippie fashions and plot incoherencies of his film adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice (2014). In comparison, Phantom Thread straightforwardly conveys the story of an accoladed and distinguished celebrity who finds a new muse in a country waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps), but then learns that she has a more willful independence than he had bargained for.

Woodcock is a capital A Artist, extremely successful at his trade, surrounded by menial seamstresses and a resigned but competent middle management assistant/boss sister named Cyril (Lesley Manville) in his London townhouse. But Reynolds can be given to fits of temper when Alma butters her toast too loudly because he cannot stand interruptions to his concentration (my wife was quite happy to point out how I can oppressively be much the same way in my sensitivity to noise). Reynolds is also death-haunted and superstitious, placing secret items in the linings of his creations--words that attempt to get rid of a curse to a wedding dress, a locket of his mother's hair inside of his jacket, or the name of someone he's infatuated with. Alma, 25 years his junior, is happy to learn that she inspires him with her fair-haired German beauty, but she soon grows tired of catering to him, his busy schedule, and to his many acolytes as if she has no self to assert. One evening, she decides to kick everyone out of the townhouse and fix him a meal which included asparagus cooked in butter. Reynolds replies by showing up for dinner in his pajamas (in this film, the ultimate insult). Meals in this movie often serve as a kind of communion, but since Reynold is not really interested in Alma's internal life beyond her ability to help him with his art, she ultimately moves on to more extreme measures to control him.

I immensely enjoyed most of this movie, but there's a scene towards the end that struck me as both unlikely and the kind of thing that filmmakers nowadays often fall prey to--a moment of narrative extremity designed for a jaded audience that needs something more, a tendency that often bends movies' third acts out of whack as a result. In comparison, I like to remember the climactic scene when Day-Lewis as Newland Archer is tortured by turn of the century New York society in Scorsese's excellent The Age of Innocence (1993). In this concluding plot movement,  Day Lewis looks enormously pained by the fact that he can only sit next to Madame Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) during a dinner party instead of running off with her as his beloved. The climax of that movie has plenty of soul-crushing drama and tension, but it remains plausible, whereas the final act of Phantom Thread did not quite work for me, but given the brilliance of the rest of the film, one can take my reaction as highly qualified.

It's fun to brood upon Phantom Thread's cinematic DNA. During a fashion show, Reynolds arranges for Alma to walk past a hole in the wall so that he can secretly spy upon her as she sways and struts before an adoring audience. The scene directly refers to Norman Bates' peeping tom activity in Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) as he spies upon Marion Crane as she prepares to take an ill-fated shower, but in this case Alma knows what he's doing, and appears to enjoy her extra illicit audience member. At another time, Reynolds has Alma awkwardly strip to her shift and then take her measurements as a slightly ironical Cyril takes down his dictation. Using his Pygmalion-esque couture genius, Reynolds transforms Alma just as Scottie (James Stewart) obsessively metamorphoses Judy (Kim Novak) into Madeleine by having her wear a grey suit and just the right tight curl in her hair in Vertigo. 

Of course, Norman is a psychopath and Scottie is a depressed control freak, both variations of Hitchcock's increasingly deplorable tendency to control and immobilize the loved object in his creations, but Phantom Thread left me wondering why so many stories about artists have to end up violating his or her self-absorbed autonomy. As Day-Lewis said in a recent interview, "If a poet is not self-absorbed, what else is he?" Couldn't Reynolds just remain a great artist? Recently, I've been studying Wes Anderson's brilliant Rushmore (1998). In this film, Max Fischer screws up his life to no end with his absurd fight with Herman Blume and his highly inappropriate and intrusive infatuation with Rosemary Cross, but then he heals these relationships by writing and staging a new play that acknowledges his mistakes, in effect using his art to cure his reality. Reynolds, in comparison, does not have that option with his couture skills. Instead, he must suffer a kind of degradation in Alma's hands, and I just get tired of otherwise admirable characters getting dragged down, even if they deserve it.

[I showed this draft to my wife, who had this to say in response:] "Doesn't the film also suggest that even artists have to live in the real world?  And, you can't just go around hurting other people?  I've known genuine artists who were also self-absorbed narcissists, people who purposefully (whether they knew it or not) destroyed things and people in order to create art.  I don't think anyone gets a pass on hurting others, even if he/she creates the most beautiful art in the world.  Reynolds enjoys moving on to the next muse, even saying that he can't marry because it's not fair--as if treating every woman at the end of the relationship as someone you can just discard is in any way fair.  It's not.  He thinks he has some sort of moral high ground because he doesn't marry--and that allows him to treat people horribly."

Poised between these two perspectives--the admiration of the artist, and the depiction of the rightful consequences of his sins--Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread treats us to much food for thought, perhaps because it leaves a mixed after-taste.  


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