Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread

saw this last night. some extant thoughts:

Anderson’s later films focus on obsessive men who reshape the world around them. This often hides a fragile inability to cope with the messiness and meaninglessness of existence. Daniel Plainview moves the earth to build an empire. Lancaster Dodd fashions a philosophy to function as a spiritual and physical hermeneutic. And Reynolds Woodcock instills a near-draconian order of mannerisms that perpetuates an endless childhood of wants. In each way, Anderson’s films are classically psychoanalytic in the ways of studio portrayals of Great Men. They shape the world, but are driven by adolescent desires and fixations. Instead of revealing this in a climax (no Rosebud sequence here), he opens with it, and his films are a long unfurling of the consequences of their stubbornness, usually through the tragic involvement of someone outside of the world they’ve constructed for themselves. Or, it’s a tragic Pygmalion, as the Great Men fail to groom an apprentice or lover.

Phantom Thread is also a film about haunting—signaled by the title. A sort of British ghost story, not unlike Rebecca or The Innocents. Anderson emphasizes the hyper-corporeal to suggest the ethereal. There is a fragility to the world. The close-up shots of fingers grasping needles pulling thread; the real country dark driving sequence that threatens to veer off the road at any moment. This Freudian Great Man narrative collides with the ghost story as the film works itself out into a simpatico pairing of two figures at loggerheads. Like an uneasy happy-ending Vertigo, Reynolds makes his dead mother manifest in a kink scenario where Alma plays mommy so they can fuck and get along. It’s left wholly ambiguous. Is this a happy resolution of personal foibles or should we be disturbed by it? I’m not kink-shaming here, only that I don’t buy for a second that Alma would work so hard to impress an insufferable asshole only to turn from vanilla to highly involved sexual scripts, but whatever.

To atomize the works of Anderson reveals a master. Each element in isolation is immaculate: the Greenwood score, Anderson’s cinematography, the meticulous production design, the commanding performances. But they never quite come together. I’ve struggled to articulate, to put my finger on precisely why I cannot stand the films of PTA (with the sole exception of Inherent Vice). Something about them I find grating. They are weighted down by a performative profundity and an overworked, calculated opacity. The subtleties of composition and performance are always at odds with Anderson’s penchant for bombast. The music underscoring every breathing second (often to the detriment of the moment) and the constant cutting to movements that seems wholly innocuous—excess information. This staggered editing, the deliberate disruption of its own musicality frequently makes me nauseous while watching. Moments are busy with cutting, each shot revealing less and less of what has already been established, only to move to some contrived revelation or confrontation. And Phantom Thread is lousy with the same confrontations played over and over.

It is perhaps this disorienting juxtaposition of slow subtlety with Anderson’s distrust of his own audience. After painstakingly establishing the film’s mood and ideas he always slips in an overwrought and wholly uninteresting declaration to the audience, like a hammer-blow to the temple, in case you didn’t get it. Phantom Thread has two such moments, both revolve around Reynold’s mushroom poisoning. In the first instance, Reynolds is lying in bed ill and sees his ghost mom. He monologues at her about how he misses her; about how his life is shaped by her presence. Anderson transposes the entire running time of the film up to this point into a monologue. He delicately established everything that Reynolds now bluntly articulates. It felt like an overly contrived moment (unrelated: a much better ghost parent sequence can be found in Fanny and Alexander). The second hammer-blow occurs in the film’s climax during the ostentatiously telegraphed dance of the mushroom omelet. Alma proceeds to explain her needs, which have already been established through every single sequence with Alma and Reynolds. Who is she telling? Clearly if Reynolds is consensually eating the poison omelet then they already have an agreement about why they do this. Yet Anderson, covering all his bases, must tell us also.

My complaint here is not bluntness nor exposition, per se. Rather, for the two hours and ten-minute running time Anderson essentially fashions the same sequence over and over. Phantom Thread is a film of deliberate repetition: the need and resistance between Reynolds and Alma and the shifting position of Cyril between them. So, when the film comes to a confessional mode, it merely explains what has already been established in triplicate. And this is not Bressonian doubling and tripling we’re talking about. This is a filmmaker unsure of himself, more attuned to details than to movement.

I hesitated to write this because I don’t want to be that girl who sees everyone collectively enjoying the latest work of a beloved filmmaker and can only muster a contrary hottake. The thrill of experiencing a masterwork that speaks to your soul—during awards season no less—is an experience to be cherished. However, I feel compelled to register, or at least attempt to put my finger on, why I dislike this film so much. I must admit, I feel like an alien on another planet when I articulate my disinterest in his work, thus you get this Letterboxd post. Actually, I lied. My hottake is this: Phantom Thread is 50 Shades for the Merchant Ivory set.

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