kevinyang’s review published on Letterboxd:
I'm going to try to do my best to respond now to criticisms I've seen of the film, as I feel strongly about defending what I believe to be a near masterpiece that I managed to underrate the first time around. I underrated Day-Lewis and Manville. I underrated the twisted humor. I underrated the brilliantly precise development of the film as a whole. I feel confident saying this is one of the greatest films of the decade and perhaps the greatest of 2017. I've been disappointed with a lot of the offerings from 2017, but this film reaches a level of emotional depth and complexity that others failed to hit.
"Alma has no backstory."
That's a fair gripe. You want to connect to the character and know who she is. Here's where I stand: as long as she has believable motivations--we'll get to that after this--the lack of backstory in fact enriches the story and the environment. Alma is like a needle, disrupting the fabric of an established world only to bring two separate pieces of "clothing" together. She is mysterious by design, a mystery to the House of Woodcock and a force that breaks stringent patterns wherever she goes. As I've always said, intent doesn't equate to good, but if we know exactly where she's coming from and who she is, then the tension dissipates. After all, she is a fantasy. She is defined by Woodcock, and he doesn't necessarily need nor want backstory. He wants to mold her, to be the one who, for instance, decides if she "has breasts" or not. Now, this all sounds awfully regressive, but the thing about this film is that it's extremely critical of that dynamic. The film wants to break down that fantasy, to emphasize agency, to have Alma take control. You can certainly do that with backstory, if done right. I think PTA chooses the right route for this particular film by focusing on development throughout. That brings us to:
"The character development is nonexistent and the motivations and personalities unclear."
This one is a bit more confusing to me. Every little moment from the beginning seems to me a form of character development, of revealing the personalities of these characters even with little backstory. The film is essentially a large attempt to complicate every aspect of the premise, and if you think it failed at doing so, fair enough. I just want to point to moments early on, like when Alma says "If you're trying to have a staring contest with me, you'll lose." It's an innocuous statement, but it's wholly Alma and in fact wholly Woodcock. Or what about Woodcock taking Alma's measurements? It's such a sensual, almost masturbatory, scene that creates a push and pull between all three characters, and Alma's face is so rich with complexity. She's happy at first. Then her face falls. She thinks she's just another useless model, someone Woodcock gets to define. Then things change. The quintessential Alma determination sets in. This desire to not merely be a pawn is Alma's motivation, and Woodcock's is his desire to have Alma without the destruction of his foundation. With Woodcock, there's the issue of his mom and her relevance today, an angle touched upon throughout the film. But to add onto that, there's also the swirling uncertainty of love and attraction, complicating those motivations and interrogating what it really means to want something or someone. They love each other because they're similar and because they're both mysteries--challenges, if you will--but they also simultaneously don't really understand why they love each other. So in terms of development, the film builds upward on the blank slate of Alma and breaks down the established slate of Woodcock until they meet in the middle.
"It's yet another cliched, pretentious story about a tortured artist and his genius."
Sure, but as I argued above, it's also a deliberate breaking down of that type of story. Its attitude toward its own period piece setup is arguably almost irreverent in nature, and the sparks of humor throughout feed into that attitude. Alma loves Woodcock, but she (and the film) also finds him kind of ridiculous. I struggle to call this cliche when everything past the initial setup is, once again, a form of complication and interrogation. The scene between Woodcock and Cyril near the end about Woodcock's feelings is one of the more brilliant scenes of the film because of its contrast to typical works that revere without complicating. The entire film is a power play that understands that power can have its cracks.
I disagree. I found there to be enough subtleties in each new interaction to make everything feel fresh. Yes, this is a film filled with conflicts, but there's a push and pull to this dynamic that I believe develops wonderfully. The conflicts themselves may be repetitive, but the chipping away at the characters with each interaction is not.
"Daniel Day-Lewis was not as good as everyone says."
This is just personal preference. I found him to be incredible, though Krieps is still the star and Manville needs more attention.
Again, personal preference plays a role. I found it utterly enthralling, but if you didn't buy into the dynamics of the characters or the aesthetics of the work, then boring is definitely a logical takeaway.
"The score is overbearing."
I think we can all agree on the beauty of Greenwood's compositions as compositions. In the context of the film, I can see why you wouldn't want a score to tell you how to feel, but I don't think it's doing that here. Since this is a film about power plays and the complications of human emotions, it makes sense that oscillations in the score match the oscillations in the characters. It's not replacing those character moments; it's complementing them like it's its own character. I think PTA does a wonderful job showing us what we need to see on screen, and I think Greenwood does a wonderful job smoothly flowing in and out of the director's vision.
Please feel free to disagree wherever you may, and I'll try to respond. But ultimately, I love this film in all its complicated, confusing glory. I revel in its intoxicating, suffocating, and ultimately freeing atmosphere. It's a love letter to the mysteries of the human brain, to the euphoric highs of attraction and even to the crushing loneliness that defines our cravings for attention. The final twenty minutes are the best twenty minutes of cinema in 2017. This is a twisted film, but it's also hopeful and loving and beautiful.
"Kiss me, my girl, before I'm sick."