WASHINGTON — His Oscar-winning roles in “My Left Foot” (1989), “There Will Be Blood” (2007) and “Lincoln” (2012) remain three of the finest performances ever committed to the screen.
So it was with sadness and skepticism that we heard Daniel Day-Lewis announce that Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread” would be his final career role. Is this really a legend’s final bow? Or, is it a publicity ploy to get folks to watch an otherwise hard-to-market flick?
The campaign appears to have worked, earning six Academy Award nominations — Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, Costumes and Score — for a movie that, if it were a dress, looks stunning in the window but, once you try it on, is very uncomfortable to wear.
Set in 1950s London, renowned dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) womanizes his way through various fashion models. His latest muse is Alma (Vicky Krieps), a young waitress whom he meets at a diner and invites back to live at his opulent estate, which doubles as his couture parlor. Upon her arrival, Alma meets Cyril (Lesley Manville), Woodcock’s judgmental sister and business partner who hangs around with more than a little jealousy for his muses.
If it is indeed his final role, Day-Lewis sure picked a dandy. In the aptly-named Woodcock, he portrays a particular petulant perfectionist who doesn’t know how to love or be loved. His quietly cantankerous manner also provides welcome comic relief, demanding peace and quiet during his morning routine and shooting eye daggers at Alma for clanking her silverware while buttering her toast. Only a master like Day-Lewis could pull off such insular obsession.
Still, the more fascinating exchanges come between Krieps and Manville, who recall the rivalry between Mrs. De Winter (Joan Fontaine) and Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) in Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” (1940), which I suppose makes Day-Lewis our Laurence Olivier. The jealousy is most palpable as Woodcock takes Alma’s measurements. “You have no breasts,” Woodcock bluntly tells Alma before Cyril adds with snark, “You’re just his type. He likes them with a little belly.”
Also, like “Rebecca,” Anderson teases ghostly possibilities that put the “phantom” in “Phantom Thread.” This supernatural element is set up early as Woodcock explains how he secretly sews his dead mother’s hair into the lining of his garments, just so she’s never far away from his heart. This pays off later during a fever dream when he imagines her standing at his bedside, a moment that fittingly comes just after the macabre message is removed from his lining.
The film even recalls “Rebecca” in the way that Anderson depicts Woodcock’s estate, not so much in the Gothic shadows of Daphne du Maurier, but in turning the home into a character. The period look belongs to production designer Mark Tildesley (“The Constant Gardener”), set designer Veronique Melery (“Jackie”) and costume designer Mark Bridges (“The Artist”), all draped in an enveloping piano score by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood (“Inherent Vice”).
In this atmospheric environment, Anderson weaves a poetic whirlwind of drapes opening, doors closing and footsteps on spiral staircases, as the camera swoops smoothly like Max Ophuls’ “Earrings of Madame De …” (1953). Later, Anderson’s camera attaches to the back of Woodcock’s car, riding through the countryside and pulling up to the house like Manderley.
But that’s where the similarities end with “Rebecca,” which was far more crafty in its narrative and certainly more accessible to audiences. While Hitchcock used the ghostly element for a shocking revelation, Anderson leaves it to subtle character study. And while Hitchcock built Danvers’ jealousy into a fiery finale, Anderson brings it to a head — Cyril failing to inform Woodcock that Alma is behind him — only to undercut it by having Alma return to him.
Susan Alexander left Charles Foster Kane alone at Xanadu. Vickie left Jake LaMotta a fat failure at a cheap nightclub. But Alma perversely stays with her abuser, giving the film a tone-deaf message at a time when so many women are outing and fleeing their real-life Woodcocks. Who knows why she loves this self-obsessed artist so much, nor does the script care to infer.
If you prefer screenplay structure, this thread unravels down the stretch, mushrooming into an implausible finish that was better executed months ago by Sofia Coppola in “The Beguiled” (2017). After so much slow-burn psychodrama, we’re absolutely hungry for these juicy twists, but their lovesick masochism is hard to swallow. When the jig is finally up, I just didn’t buy it.
Thus, “Phantom Thread” is a film to admire for its dazzling visuals and power performances, but frustrating to consume as an audience experience due to its shaky script. I’m always skeptical of a Best Picture nominee that lacks a screenplay nomination (i.e. “The Revenant”), suggesting it’s not a complete film. Its Best Picture nod should have gone to “Mudbound.”
That’s not to say that I’m off the P.T. Anderson train. On the contrary, “Boogie Nights” (1997), “Magnolia” (1999), “There Will Be Blood” (2007) and “The Master” (2012) are masterpieces. I’ll gladly defend the merits of each, particularly “The Master,” which was daringly divisive but maintained a consistent thematic throughline: beware of brainwashed cults of personality.
And so, I’m in the uncomfortable position of admitting that two of my favorite contemporary filmmakers, Darren Aronofsky and P.T. Anderson, didn’t bring their A-games with “mother!” and “Phantom Thread.” They’re both daring designers I admire, so when I saw their outfits on display in the window, I bought them immediately. But after wearing them, they didn’t fit.
“Excuse me? I’d like to return this Oscar nominee. Do you have anything in a size “Rebecca?'”
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