Phantom Thread: Exquisitely crafted story of love as a power play

About half an hour into Phantom Thread, Daniel Day-Lewis’ character Reynolds Woodcock speeds through the British country roads in his maroon Bristol 405 sports car; the camera is mounted on the rear of the car and gives a glorious view of the landscape whizzing by. On one hand, this sudden change of pace from Woodcock’s stately and ordered life as shown in the first half hour comes as a surprise…I thought to myself, “the old boy’s not so stodgy after all”. On the other hand, this camera view of the road in front with everything else a blur, accentuates Woodcock’s tunnel vision of life…no one else matters,  only him and his craft.

And speaking of craft, Phantom Thread is full of it, both in its behind the scenes look at life inside a luxury fashion house in the 50’s and in the way the film is put together by 8-time Oscar-nominated American auteur Paul Thomas Anderson. Both are full of meticulous detail, exquisitely crafted, in a way that reminded me of another American auteur Martin Scorsese.

Reynolds Woodcock and his sister Cyril run the reputed Woodcock fashion house like a well-oiled machine. Reynolds is the face of the business, an outwardly charming creative genius who is a god to his rich and royal customers; Cyril is the operational head, who manages the business and the house. They are served by a dozen or so experienced, quietly competent and highly reliable seamstresses. Behind the scenes, Reynolds is still a child, haunted by an obsessive love for his deceased mother and like so many outwardly successful people, racked by insecurity and a desire for control. Cyril is the person who is really in control, the gatekeeper who “manages” Reynolds, including helping him to get rid of lovers and muses who have become clinging and tiresome. And into this finely balanced set-up arrives young Alma Elson (played by Luxembourgish actress Vicky Krieps), a waitress at a countryside restaurant who catches Reynolds’ eye and becomes his newest companion. Unlike the previous women, Alma has a steely resolve hidden inside the unsophisticated country girl exterior and quickly engages in a power play with Cyril on who exercises more control over Reynolds.

And so, Phantom Thread ends up being a film about Love and Power. Both women would swear that they do what they do out of love for Reynolds. The sister does so by pandering to his whims (and thereby making him dependent on her) while the lover seeks to break him free of his self-created social cage, but ironically wants him to be free only so that he can focus entirely on her (and eventually goes to unconscionable lengths to win the battle and establish control over him). And a willing player in this game is Reynolds Woodcock, a prisoner of his own inflexibility, a child lost inside a man, who subconsciously seeks a female authority-figure to replace the mother that he pines for. I was reminded of Day-Lewis’ character Newton Archer, from Scorsese’s Age of Innocence, another man who was caught in a power play between two women, outwardly in control of his life, but ultimately outwitted by his seemingly simple-minded wife.

The music, composed by Radiohead guitarist and keyboardist Jonny Greenwood (for which he has received an Oscar nomination), is refreshing and distinctive; although recorded with a 60-piece orchestra, it stays simple and light, in keeping with the rarified, high society setting of the film. The film has also been nominated for Best Film (Megan Ellison, daughter of Oracle founder Larry, receives her 4th Oscar nomination as co-producer), Best Director for Paul Thomas Anderson (his 8th nomination across directing, screenwriting and producing), Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis’ 6th nomination – he has won thrice so far), Best Supporting Actress for Leslie Manville playing the stern, poker-faced sister and Best Costume Design. I think it would also have been nominated for Best Cinematography, but since the camera work was done by the director himself, uncredited, I suspect it didn’t comply with the Academy’s nomination rules. I am genuinely surprised it hasn’t been nominated for Best Production Design.

I had an interesting experience while watching this film in the theatre. Towards the start of the movie, I was distracted and irritated (as I always am) by the sound of someone noisily eating popcorn behind me; I turned around pointedly in the hope that this person would get the hint (the sounds soon stopped). Soon afterwards, in the film, Reynolds Woodcock gets supremely agitated with Alma’s loud eating and drinking at the breakfast table. She soon learns to eat her breakfast quietly so as not to disturb the great man’s early morning creative process, but later on she is back to her old ways and the noises of her eating visibly grates on Reynolds’ ears. In a film that is quite dark and serious, these sequences are played out with a degree of dry wit that had me (and the audience) chuckling in sympathy with Reynolds, giving me personally, a feeling of comfort that I was not the only person to suffer in this way!

This is not a film for all tastes, but if you have the patience to watch an engrossing, beautifully crafted film, with multiple layers of meaning and emotion, then do not miss this.

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