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Thursday, May 24, 2018

A thorny love story

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Zarin Rafiuddin attempts to untangle the Gordian knot of this emotionally complex film

There may be few films as emotionally complex and riveting as the Oscar nominated Phantom Thread. The movie was nominated for best picture but won for Best Costume Design. The film is directed and written by Paul Thomas Anderson who is best known for his work There Will be Blood (2007), which is hailed as one of the best films of the 21st century. There Will Be Blood also won two Academy Awards, for Best Actor and Best Cinematography.

It should be noted that Daniel Day-Lewis won Best Actor for There Will be Blood and is the male protagonist of Phantom Thread. Lewis plays an eccentric and renowned dress maker, Reynolds Woodcock, in 1950s London. Reynolds starts a relationship with Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps), a younger woman, who challenges him in every single way. Anderson has based some aspects of the story on the life of real life British born fashion designer, Charles James, who was America's first couture designer. The Spanish designer, Cristóbal Balenciaga was also an influence.

To my perspective, the film was like a re-reading of the classic Pygmalion tale with severe twists and turns. My Fair Lady (1964) was a modern adaptation of the tale but Phantom Thread pushes the envelope of that very narrative. The movie has sharp, crisp visuals on both the dresses and the atmosphere. It begins in a soft, glow of light from fire in a fireplace where Alma says that Reynolds had given her all that she dreamed of and she had given him what he desired. When questioned what Reynolds had wanted she says "Every piece of me."

This statement may throw off the viewer and it does mask the events that are meant to follow. Reynolds lives in a large house, which a client has paid for. The house is also his studio and his workers, mostly women of various ages, come and help him with the dresses. He has a clientele to countesses to royalty of other nations. He is meticulous in his morning routine and requires all quiet at breakfast for his work. I saw Reynolds as an eccentric, stubborn and difficult man. He is passionate about his work and no doubt a genius in it, yet he treats people mostly as mannequins for his work. He does unknowingly or knowingly dehumanize them, aside his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville).

He meets Alma, a waitress in the countryside. She is an immigrant and she accepts his invitation to dinner. Much of the film is depicted through the quiet yet fierce facial expressions and body language that Alma displays. She thinks Reynolds treats her with an indifference as though she is only a dress to be shaped and sculpted the way he pleases. She also notices the passive-aggressive way in which Cyril dominates his life. When she makes gestures of affection, they are treated as interruptions; when Cyril walks in unannounced or does things, she is welcomed despite everything.

In the beginning of the relationship, Alma warns Reynolds to be careful with her. Cyril also mentions she is his ideal body type and muse. Initially, Alma adores and admires Reynolds. She feels beautiful in his clothes and knows that she is wearing clothes that many women covet to wear. Yet, Reynolds always had this intangible distance between them. Even in their vey first amorous encounter he tugs her on hand, pulling her forward, and she giggles. It seemed to me like thread as though he was treating her as fabric. This is where the tale of Pygmalion haunted my watching of the film. Pygmalion is ancient Greek mythological sculptor, who sculpts his perfect woman, Galatea, and the gods bring her to life. Reynolds seems to unconsciously objectify Alma, which begins to wear her out and frustrate her.

As Vicky Krieps stated in an interview, it takes patience and strength to be a muse. I should say that one can easily run out of that patience and strength. Anderson specifically chose Krieps when watching her play Lynn, in the German movie, The Chambermaid Lynn (2014). He wanted a character who could immerse like a ghost in the background still be hauntingly present even by their seeming absence. Alma desires to be heard, acknowledged and be loved by Reynolds. She wishes him to treat her as an equal.

This cannot be as Reynolds treats her as an ideal and a muse. He condescends her repeatedly throughout the film and also arrogantly feels that he has brought her to the life of luxuries so he can treat her this way. At first, Alma endures the condescension and thinks by being what Reynolds wants she may get some acknowledgment. Yet, sheultimately understands that he only treats her as some mystical object. When she tries to be intimate, affectionate and romantic, Reynolds acts disturbs and daunts her efforts at communication.

 Alma also notices that Reynolds does not take human vulnerability well and acts as though he is impervious and impregnable to anything. He has mental breakdowns for a few days, where Alma always nurses him back to health. It is at these moments, that Reynolds acts "tender" and he accepts Alma as his equivalent. However, the constant indifference and objectification pushes Alma against all her limits. Their relationship becomes mutually abusive and dysfunctional, with each hurting the other. Alma refuses to be a passive object and she refuses to coddle Reynold, as she explains he is like "A spoiled child."

Phantom Thread seemed to be a more nuanced version of the Pygmalion mythology. Here Galatea also has expectations of Pygmalion and wanting an ideal partner, without any understanding, communication or emotional warmth would lead to tragedy. In many ways, Phantom Thread is a tragic love story because Reynolds primarily refuses to acknowledge Alma as a person and then Alma, being an immigrant with little choices, decides to manipulate Reynolds so that they can have some sort of life together. There is a power play in their relationship and it is not pretty. It is messy and sad but it is true that there could have been no other story than this for these characters.

Anderson says that he was initially struck with the idea when he was convalescing from an illness and he saw his wife look at him attentively and with a love he hadn't seen in a while. Then he researched intensely and came up with the story. It is a great juxtaposition. Usually, the fashion industry celebrates beauty, glamour and aesthetics. It does not celebrate human weakness and vulnerability. However, the fashion industry is for humanity so even when it tries to separate things into different categories it can fail.

Overall, Phantom Thread is a movie filled with telling facial expressions, nuanced body language, beautiful clothes and messy human relationships. I believe the actors did a great job in performing the subtleties and intricate parts of the film. The film is never overtly violent but carries with it a lot of quiet violence in many scenes. It is for older audiences but it speaks in many volumes and engages us with its intelligent storytelling and brilliant characters.


The reviewer is working with The Asian Age.

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