Tuesday, January 9, 2018

"Phantom Thread": The Muse Wears Black

Fashion, as Sunday night’s  Golden Globes “black-out” has shown us, can be a potent political statement. All of those gorgeous movieland fashionistas who purged color from their party frocks certainly made a point about female solidarity and the need to end sexual harassment now. Though many of their outfits were prim by Hollywood standards, some barely-there numbers seemed, confusingly, to invite the sort of sexual attention their wearers professed themselves so eager to decry. Still, I appreciated the monochrome aesthetics of the gathering, and admired designers’ flexibility in coming up with so many all-black looks on very short notice.   

But enough about the vagaries of fashion, Hollywood-style. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread looks at the world of dressmaking with a different eye. He’s interested in the life of a London haute-couture house, one charged with dressing the cream of international society from cradle to grave. Heiresses and royals descend on the house of Woodcock to be fitted for exquisite gowns, day-dresses, and wedding ensembles, each garment a hand-sewn and timeless masterpiece. That’s the irony: in the eyes of designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his staff, the dresses are far more important than the VIPs who will wear them. In one of the movie’s most exhilarating scenes, a fabulous green ensemble is deftly rescued from the drunken body of the wealthy woman who’d commissioned it. In Woodcock’s eyes, she simply isn’t worthy of being entrusted with one of his wearable works of art. 

Phantom Thread takes place in the 1950s, when Post World War II Europe was celebrating a return to high standards of luxury. Fabric is sumptuous; lines are classic. There’s no desire to shock or surprise: that iconoclastic spirit would wait until the following decade, when such rebels as André Courrèges and Mary Quant democratized fashion, hiking hemlines and turning style into something for the very young and very fit. For the wearer, the only surprise about a Woodcock ensemble would be discovering the cryptic written message that the designer tends to tuck into the occasional hem, a secret memo to himself and (perhaps) to posterity. 

In Phantom Thread there’s an enigmatic young woman, played by Vicky Krieps, who (both literally and figuratively) finds and decodes that message. Alma—whose name means “soul’—is a tall, lean figure, first glimpsed stumbling awkwardly while serving breakfast in a country tea-room. Her origins are obscure, as are her motives. But from the first she seems willing enough to fall under the spell of Woodcock, who sees in her proportions his aesthetic ideal. She quickly becomes his model and his muse, but is not afraid to announce her own tastes and to chafe against his more high-handed behavior. (Woodcock’s sphinx-like sister and business manager, ominously played by Leslie Manville, completes a strange isosceles triangle.) 

Midway through the film, Alma seems to be taking over the story, daring to assert her own will in ways  we wouldn’t have expected. Her behavior is so boldly capricious that Phantom Thread starts to seem like a different film, maybe one marked by a tinge of the supernatural. Is Alma, perhaps, meant to be viewed as an allegorical figure in a tale modeled after Poe or Henry James? Certainly, it’s easy to see her as the slippery muse who holds the artist’s fate in her hands. But Anderson’s characters are far too alive to ever be reduced to mere abstractions. The fact that they slip away from us does not reduce their humanity. (Nor, of course, does the apparent fact we’re about to lose Day-Lewis to retirement. We need him too badly to let him go.)

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