Saturday, 2 June 2018

On Blu-ray - David Hare puzzles over Paul Thomas Anderson's PHANTOM THREAD

Random grabs from the astonishing 4K/HDR Universal Blu-ray disc of P T Anderson’s Phantom Thread. The disc is total reference quality, demonstrating a seamless transition from 35mm filming on Kodak Vision stock to the digital 4K domain. (Click on the images to enlarge them or run a slideshow.)
"brittle recreation of 1956 London", Phantom Thread
I have admired PTA greatly over the years. I found The Master(2012) masterly and I suspect I am the only person I know who was enough of a stoner and acidhead to “get” Inherent Vice (2014). But I am trying to avoid the feeling with Phantom Thread he’s now simply pulling a fast one. Anderson is surely a major documentarist of post war America. But this brittle recreation of 1956 London gets so much seemingly wrong, or maybe that’s his intention?
Vicky Krieps, Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread
Let’s start with the frocks from the supposed Perfectionist, Reynolds Woodcock played by Danny Day Lewis in a multiplicity of keys, a couturier to the higher orders designing frocks which are all completely hideous. Even Woodcock says, when he’s first affected by poison and in the throes of a clear-sighted delirium, “it’s ugly.” I have to comment en passant I was watching this between screenings, ever joyous, of Cukor’s Les Girls (1957) in which Orry-Kelly’s wardrobe fights the three stars for screen time and usually wins, in a sublime display of form elevating substance. 
Formally Phantom Thread buries its subject in what feels like a quicksand of visual and audible detail, down to the insistent, teeth grinding wallpaper 50s anti-jazz score by Jonny Greenwood. Every single detail of Anderson’s setting is a contribution to a sensibility which I ultimately find overwhelmingly ugly and frankly middlebrow. I am assuming the irritation factor from this disjunct between form and substance is intentional, and that somehow the movie is casting its mise-en-scène over the material for purposes of irony. 
So at this point I am just not sure of Anderson’s intentions about the nature of Woodcock’s salon or even his personality. As entertaining as it is, Danny’s creation of Reynolds Woodcock (surely the bodgiest of spiv adopted posh names ever cooked up for an American film about the Poms) is in essence no more than a composite of perhaps the grand total of actually heterosexual couturiers in 50s Britain. Not many surely, but enough to keep Danny on his feet. God knows, for a film about fashion and frocks, the movie is more than conspicuous in its failure to include a single gay character or reference. It’s a bit like making a movie about the ballet without any homosexuals. Not only absurd but consciously evasive. But this might have challenged PTA's comfort zone perhaps? 
The movie is finally a failure, not only for this detail but because it fails to achieve coherence for a picture which strives so hard for the texture of overwhelming verisimilitude (the dreaded “Vera” as the queens used to call it.) At a late point in the narrative, one of his customers defaults to another, new designer to whom Cyril refers as “chic.” The word and concept enrages Woodcock who throws yet another tantrum. We suddenly get a glimmer of the stolid and ultimately bourgeois nature of his obsessions and neuroses, his creations and ultimately the film’s entire stylistic and formal base, if not its meaning, which remains as ever elusive. 
'the star of the show', Lesley Manville as Cyril
Phantom Thread
The salon and its world of minor Royal list dipso clients is beyond even middlebrow. Anderson does have a lot of fun with one of them, the dowager, played by a wonderful Gina McKee. But the star of the show of course remains the wise owl, Cyril, played with benign gravity by Lesley Manville. Here, unapologetically resides the beating heart of the film, if indeed it has one. 
The final act proposes a kind of Slave/Master marital arrangement which attempts to resolve the battle of wills between Woodcock and Alma (Belgian newcomer Vicky Krieps). The solution seems rushed and as a friend commented, the dramatic arc falls apart at this point. For all the detail and sumptuous production values - and they look and sound completely stunning on this new disc - the film remains at a third viewing for me a fascinating thing of bits and pieces, never not worth watching, but completely unsatisfying artistically. 
But I doubt there’s any other director working today – maybe Refn or Michael Mann – who can put so much – dammit – sheer unadulterated, tactile beauty into a movie, even while the actual simulacrum of the milieu is actually rubbish.

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