Skip to main content

If you want to have a staring contest with me, you will lose.

Phantom Thread
(2017)

(SPOILERS) Perhaps surprisingly not the lowest grossing of last year's Best Picture Oscar nominees (that was Call Me by Your Name) but certainly the one with the least buzz as a genuine contender, subjected as Phantom Thread was to a range of views from masterpiece (the critics) to drudge (a fair selection of general viewers). The mixed reaction wasn’t so very far from Paul Thomas Anderson's earlier The Master, and one suspects the nomination was more to do with the golden glow of Daniel Day-Lewis in his first role in half a decade (and last ever, if he's to be believed) than mass Academy rapture with the picture. Which is ironic, as the relatively unknown Vicky Krieps steals the film from under him.


I'm probably out of step with most PTA acolytes in that I don't much care for his acclaimed early works (Boogie Nights, Magnolia); my appreciation only really takes hold with There Will Be Blood. Everything since has been rather mesmerising – if sometimes flawed – and this wilfully perverse picture is no exception, flipping a tale of an indulged, emotionally manipulative eccentric fashion designer (stand up, Daniel) into a piece about mutual massaging of unhealthy impulses that somehow – at least, at the point we leave the couple in apparent contentment – makes them whole. I’m not sure I'm fully on board with comparisons to gothic melodramas such as Rebecca, although I can see where they’re coming from. There's definitely a streak of sadistic intimacy in common, but in terms of genre, Phantom Thread feels like its own thing, even though the director name checks the influences himself. The film isn't gothic in texture, and while the comparisons to Powell and Pressburger have validity in terms of visual dexterity and acumen with character, they don't quite feel right either.


In part, there's the same painstakingly unhurried pace common to The Master and There Will be Blood, and the need to let yourself be led into whichever unforeseen direction PTA wishes to take you. But the route is less obviously accessible here due to the lack of dramatic fireworks and the contrasting attention to detail of Reynold Woodcock's attention to detail. Reynold is a prissy, anally retentive genius, "a spoiled little baby" propped up by his ever-present sister ("My old so and so"), who hires and fires his muses with a sell-by-date (muse is an overly kind way of regarding his vassals). 


Alma (Krieps) looks to be the shy, retiring latest conquest, swept away by the man and so poised to be eventually ruined by him. Except that she won’t be bowed by his pettiness, even though it appears she has no recourse. We've already seen, or been told, of the funks he gets after a design triumph, where he is reduced to an infantile, needy state and so accepting of affection – as much as he cruelly spurns it when he is riding a creative wave – but Alma's inspired method of taming him through perceiving this still comes as a surprise. 


Indeed, the turn the film takes with the introduction of poisonous mushrooms flips your expectations for the picture and the characters in an entirely riveting, inventive and original manner. I’m not entirely sure I even believe it – that Alma knew she wouldn't kill him, and that the result would play out exactly the way they do – but I'm willing to go with it, simply because it's so perverse. You think we're in Suspicion territory, that Alma will be found out, since their subsequent marriage is built on a huge deceit, and it isn't long before he's returned to past form – as soon as their honeymoon, in fact. So when she makes him a drugged omelette and he eats it, instructing her "Kiss me, my girl, before I'm sick" it's a deliciously twisted moment of depraved interdependency; they're both getting what they need, even if the long term consequences for his liver are in doubt. That there's no indication of the hows and whys of his knowing, but it isn't really as important as the implications. 


Krieps is astonishing throughout, and mesmerising in a way Day-Lewis, for all his ticks and quirks and precision, can't hope to compete with. Indeed, it may have been as inevitable as your average Meryl movie that he'd be up for awards noms, but it's as outrageous that she was shut out of the conversation. Lesley Manville is also outstanding as the imperious sister; a later scene, where he goes to her bemoaning the effect of Alma on his life but finds himself thoroughly put in his place by the women he thought he held sway over, is perfect. 


This trio hog the screen throughout, but their interactions with others through vignettes still etch themselves on the mind, from fitting Gina McKee's countess with a horrid dress (my personal opinion, as Woodcock clearly thinks it's perfection) to Alma snatching one away from an old sous (Harriet Sansom Rose) she doesn't believe deserves to wear it, to Woodcock blithely recalling how rude he was to Brian Gleeson's doctor when he was ill, and in so doing being blithely rude to him again.


PTA has made a fascinating film. It is, perhaps, guilty of being somewhat self-conscious in its artistic obsessiveness, replete with precisely rictus compositions and in thrall to earlier eras in a manner that recalls Scorsese's The Age of Innocence, but it’s hard to argue that the approach isn't entirely justified by the subject matter. So too, Johnny Greenwood's score is gorgeous, and feels as if it has come straight out of classic Hollywood; it really ought to have taken an Oscar. As for Day-Lewis, do I really think he has retired? Only for as long as it takes PTA to come up with another role he can't resist. 


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

And my father was a real ugly man.

Marty (1955)
(SPOILERS) It might be the very unexceptional good-naturedness of Marty that explains its Best Picture Oscar success. Ernest Borgnine’s Best Actor win is perhaps more immediately understandable, a badge of recognition for versatility, having previously attracted attention for playing iron-wrought bastards. But Marty also took the Palme d’Or, and it’s curious that its artistically-inclined jury fell so heavily for its charms (it was the first American picture to win the award; Lost Weekend won the Grand Prix when that was still the top award).

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

It’s like being smothered in beige.

The Good Liar (2019)
(SPOILERS) I probably ought to have twigged, based on the specific setting of The Good Liar that World War II would be involved – ten years ago, rather than the present day, so making the involvement of Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren just about believable – but I really wish it hadn’t been. Jeffrey Hatcher’s screenplay, adapting Nicholas Searle’s 2016 novel, offers a nifty little conning-the-conman tale that would work much, much better without the ungainly backstory and motivation that impose themselves about halfway through and then get paid off with equal lack of finesse.

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

The world is one big hospice with fresh air.

Doctor Sleep (2019)
(SPOILERS) Doctor Sleep is a much better movie than it probably ought to be. Which is to say, it’s an adaption of a 2013 novel that, by most accounts, was a bit of a dud. That novel was a sequel to The Shining, one of Stephen King’s most beloved works, made into a film that diverged heavily, and in King’s view detrimentally, from the source material. Accordingly, Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep also operates as a follow up to the legendary Kubrick film. In which regard, it doesn’t even come close. And yet, judged as its own thing, which can at times be difficult due to the overt referencing, it’s an affecting and often effective tale of personal redemption and facing the – in this case literal – ghosts of one’s past.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012)
The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

The sooner we are seamen again, the better.

The Bounty (1984)
(SPOILERS) How different might David Lean’s late career have been if Ryan’s Daughter hadn’t been so eviscerated, and his confidence with it? Certainly, we know about his post-A Passage to India projects (Empire of the Sun, Nostromo), but there were fourteen intervening years during which he surely might have squeezed out two or three additional features. The notable one that got away was, like Empire of the Sun, actually made: The Bounty. But by Roger Donaldson, after Lean eventually dropped out. And the resulting picture is, as you might expect, merely okay, notable for a fine Anthony Hopkins performance as Bligh (Lean’s choice), but lacking any of the visual poetry that comes from a master of the craft.