Phantom Thread (a short study)
2017 ‧ Drama/Crime film ‧ 2h 10m ‧ dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
Love in a Vial - Arsentiy Novak (FR)
Emptiness. That is the first thing one is greeted with upon exiting the cinema. An overwhelming void, precisely an antithesis to the last words spoken by Day Lewis on the film screen. There is no hunger left within us despite the ethereal beauty of Paul Thomas Anderson’s story. Perhaps that exhaustion is the very point, for such is the nature of any true romance. Yet despite the search, I find myself lacking any capability to return to Alma’s love story.
The above is unambiguous. It is without a doubt Alma’s story, not Woodcock’s. From the very moment that she stumbles into sight, one is taken by her. She has a playfulness, not unlike a child flirting with trouble. The note she leaves in the hands of ‘the hungry boy,’ serves to show that Alma is a far cry from the many muses we have seen on screen before. She arrests us not by how she looks, but by how she lives. Within her, there is also a hunger, for life. Reminiscent of a young Juliette Binoche, Krieps taps into an unquenchable passion, one that escapes Alma despite her best efforts to keep it at bay.
Woodcock is a different species. Played by the maestro himself, one would think it a rather fitting final curtain. On one side it is. Day Lewis once again demonstrates why he deserves the title, because the life-form he assumes is as compelling as it is unique. There is never a shadow of doubt that what we see before us is a living, breathing person. Nonetheless I find myself toying with a terrorising thought: I have seen it done before. And better. By Day Lewis himself, nine years earlier, in Rob Marshall’s masterpiece ‘Nine’. There too he plays a genius who’s very essence is dependent on his muses, who too suffers from weakness of a changing heart, who too cherishes his mothers memory to the point of dependance, and who too remains utterly incomprehensible to those around him, with only two women managing a glimpse inside his mind. Fascinatingly, in both cases it is the older woman who has a hold of him to start with, with Judy Dench serving the part in ‘Nine’ and Lesley Manville in the ‘Phantom Thread.’ The duty of both is to overlook the creation of costumes, as well as to protect the genius from himself. Though such comparisons are comparatively cheap, it does beg the question of whether it was Day Lewis’ desire to revisit familiar territory - perhaps not yet fully explored - that spurred him onto the role.
In Phantom Thread, Daniel Day Lewis, for the first time, reveals himself to us. His is an incomplete transformation, where the actor sacrifices a metamorphosis for truth. The great pedantic supersedes even himself, with a performance so finely detailed that one would need a microscope to find the line between the actor and the character. The trouble is, Woodcock is too similar to his own self, for Day Lewis to attempt a swim in foreign waters. He choses truth rather than some vulgar attempt to hide himself; it would betray the essence of the character. Unsurprisingly, the result is that Woodcock touches upon the core substance of his host. As a man notorious for never permitting himself to be seen upon the silver screen, I think it was with great reluctance that he allowed it this time. Yet truth is always the prerequisite for art, and Day Lewis knows that.
The undergarment of the film is that we are witness to an ongoing struggle between spontaneity and order; Alma and Woodcock. Mirroring the collision of their two worlds, Krieps and Day Lewis approach their characters in completely different ways. The former is impulsive and instinctual, playing Alma with the ease and grace of a swaying willow tree. The latter on the other hand is restrained, methodical and pure; a carefully constructed, self-witnessing performance. It reminds me of an interview I saw a while back, taken of the editor of the 'Unbearable Lightness of Being,’ Walter Murch, as he revealed a curious detail about the way Day Lewis works. The man has an autonomous control over his performance, to the point of using syllables in the delivery of lines to inform his physicality. Changing his performance would be like changing the course of the Titanic. This stands also true for his approach in Phantom Thread.
The scrap of styles compliment the troubling nature of Woodcock and Alma’s relationship. The girl wants to seize the life and love in him and wrench it to the outside, whilst Reynolds Woodcock resists with all his might. It is as though the two are in a constant battle of who is to be the puppet and who the puppet master. At some points it is Alma who dances to his flute, as our satyr ensnares her with his charm; at other points it’s her who makes him crash upon the rocks. In this way Alma is a siren rather than a muse, and those who remember Iliad will understand the importance of this point, especially when watching Woodcock cut his omelette in the final act.
Another way to apprehend this struggle (perhaps a tad more appropriate), is that Krieps portrays Alma as a girl desperate to rip away the canvas of Woodcock; she understands that there is something hidden beneath, something that has been sawn in there long ago. It was done by a true master of his craft, in both senses of the expression: Woodcock had sawn his past underneath the fabric of his life, whilst Day Lewis managed to thread together all the multiplexities of his persona into an exquisite, obsessively insufferable genius. Woodcock lives his craft to the point of a metaphor, fashioning everything around him as commanded by his taste. Yet Alma is of different cloth. Though initially perceived as somewhat simple, she progressively proves herself a match for Day Lewis’ creation. The greatest testament to this is during ‘Alma’s surprise dinner’ scene. The two artists, having rehearsed for the first time during the whole of principal photography, broke away from script and improvised. Alma, who previously burned only with the embers of old soul, finally released. Yet she knew, just as well as de Tréville did when speaking to Louis XIII, that although an explosion throws forth fire, it subsequently enlightens. And so Alma finds a way to cure Woodcock of his temperament in a way that is a revelation: one that twists the boundaries of the genre. So as not to bring ill-fate to the surprise, I’ll leave it simply by saying it’s ironic.
Quintessentially, Phantom Thread is about desire. How far is one willing to go to satisfy it; how much is one willing to suffer to keep true to it. Love, in the sense of Éros, is faintly inaccurate to describe this story - it is rather a tale of gratification, or more vulgarly, indulgence. Woodcock likes to have his fill, but only for some time. His boredom is ruthless, his curiosity cruel. He uses his muses to spur himself on, not quite being able to treat them as ends-in-themselves. Constantly shifting his attention, he never manages to stop on one thing. In a way he is a paradox to himself, for despite his marshal attitude to life it is as though he lives in a state of flux. Alma, contrastingly, is someone who desires consistency. She is a free spirit to be sure, yet one that yearns for reality. In an attempt to reach it, she plays Woodcock’s game, living his falsity and serving his impulses. A part of her enjoys it, for she is tortured by love. Yet another’s unyielding. And so, once the tables are turned, it is Woodcock who is at her mercy. Once he swallows her medicine, it is as though he awakens. His feelings are lucid, his longing is real. It is in this state that Woodcock loves her; not when he hears the melody of Alma’s siren song, but when he is drowning because of it. They love each other only when splashing in the waters of masochism, sometimes keeping their heads clear, but submergence is sine qua non of their swim.
Was this the point that Anderson and Day Lewis attempted to make? Or was it something they realised somewhat too late? That this was a tale of love as an illness, of love that depends on a phantom. The thread that connects these two beings is one called ‘Illusion’ and one must fall ill to keep it alive.