PHANTOM THREAD Movie Review

By Victoria Alexander, Film Critic

Reminds me of Pablo Picasso. Brilliant in its savvy cruelty. Day-Lewis delves deeply into his character’s psyche. Best Actor of 2017!

This quote by Oscar Wilde seems appropriate to PHANTOM THREAD: “Never love anyone who treats you like you’re ordinary.”

It is the 1950s and Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is the haute couturier to a highly select strata of women – royalty, socialites, Saudi Arabia princesses – who can afford a $100,000 gown. There are quite a few of them and these ladies are highly sought after.

Woodcock has spent his life creating The House of Woodcock and he is modeled in the same narcissistic arena as Pablo Picasso. The similarities are many.

It has been written that, for Picasso, women existed largely for his convenience and pleasure permeated not just his life but his work. Picasso famously informed one of his mistresses: “For me, there are only two kinds of women — goddesses and doormats.”

Woodcock has a “muse”, Elsa (Camilla Rutherford), who loves him and lives in his grand apartment. His devoted sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) is constantly by his side. She is the only person who has ever reprimanded him. Elsa is just an adornment for Woodcock and has willingly surrendered herself to just wait every day for Woodcock to come home. Cyril offers to give Elsa a dress and tell her that her time with Woodcock is up.

Picasso’s lover Dora Maar once told him: “As an artist you may be extraordinary, but morally speaking you are worthless.”

As writer-director, Paul Thomas Anderson illustrates this point and many others between the demanding Picasso and his Reynolds Woodcock.

Woodcock has never married, preferring glorious solitude and being with people who have broken their will to his idiosyncratic demands. The noise from buttering a piece of toast will send Woodcock into a dismal depression that would destroy his entire day.

As one of his biographers, Patrick O’Brian, observed: “Picasso’s feeling for women oscillated between extreme tenderness on the one hand and violent hatred on the other, the mid-point being dislike — if not contempt. And yet he was obsessed by women and could not bear to be without a female companion, ideally several.”

Woodcock’s atelier is supervised by Cyril with a staff of mute seamstresses who keep their heads down when he passes. He has a right to all of this – he is an artist. He creates gowns and clothes of such elegant beauty that he is revered. What happens to the gown afterwards would shock him. Are they cared for like a Da Vinci or a Picasso portrait? If a woman has several custom-made, one-of-a-kind gowns made every season, does she really care about their value or how many hours it took to make the sleeve?

Woodcock is forced by Cyril to extend politeness and charm to the House’s patrons but he has contempt for everything but his creativity in making the most beautiful dresses.

After a lifetime next to her brother, Cyril has come to direct every moment according to his stern, intractable wishes.

There is only one woman who Woodcock truly loves and that is his deceased mother. She is the essence of his being and the only person he seeks approval from.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Picasso’s famous painting of five naked prostitutes, one squatting in a pornographic manner, is often cited as evidence of his contempt for the opposite sex. Yet he adored his mother, eventually taking her maiden name, Picasso, instead of his father’s surname, Ruiz.

Perhaps like Picasso, Woodcock was born into rather improvised conditions. But his genius at dressmaking has elevated his stature to one of grandeur in the manner of an aristocrat.

Drained of his energy, Woodcock goes to his country home where he meets a simple, rural waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps), who is nothing like the socialites and models that surround his life.

Jacqueline Roque worshipped Picasso when she first met him as a 26-year-old woman – but he, at 72 at the time –  was at first indifferent. He went on to marry her in 1954 and the two were together for 20 years. She called him her ‘god’, kissed his hands and worshipped him devotedly.

Surprisingly, Woodcock chooses Alma as his next muse, knowing fully that she is not an appropriate “muse.” I feel this slyly shows his underlying contempt for the women he dresses.

With Alma, free of his affectations of proper Englishmen behavior, he’s rather sunny, funny, and amusing. The gorgeous clothes he showers Alma with, the prestige he offers and certainly his good looks also helps. Alma, unlike his other muses, chooses to work at the atelier. And unlike the women he dresses, she appears as an anonymous assistant. Alma’s true proprietary nature revels itself when she approaches a client, a princess, and announces she lives at the atelier. She will not go unrecognized.

Picasso once said: “Sex and art are the same thing.”

We never see how a man like Woodcock engages in sex with Alma. Intentionally, Anderson left this out. Why? Because he got too close to his creation to go into that? Perhaps, continuing my imperfect analysis between Picasso and a fictional character, is that Marie-Thérèse Walter described Picasso’s lovemaking as “intimidating and terrible.”

But as Oscar Wilde would have advised Alma, one should never love a man like Woodcock. Woodcock doesn’t engage Alma in conversation, cares little about her feelings, interests or opinions. She is ordinary. She is a pleasant piece of furniture. Until her chewing food starts to annoy him.

What will Alma do to bring Woodcock to heel?

And this is the way Paul Thomas-Anderson traps you into experiencing a mesmerizing, glorious film plied with deceit and volatile love.

Early on, Alma tells Woodcock that if he wants to engage in a staring contest with her, he will lose.

Indeed!

Krieps is divine and wonderfully calculating. Day-Lewis went so deep into the character of Reynolds Woodcock that he momentarily leaves Woodcock’s well-developed facade to defer to the mighty presence that Manville gives Cyril. Their one brief breakfast interaction spoke volumes about their relationship.

Day-Lewis is breathtaking. He understands this character in a way that reveals he captured this character’s psychological imprint.

As far as continuing with the plot, it is best not to spoil the third act. It is stunning and captivating and unforgettable.

Regardless if the Academy Award members feel its their last chance to honor Day-Lewis for a brilliant career in films and his decision to retire from acting may affect their voting, he deserves the Best Actor Award for PHANTOM THREAD.

Member of Las Vegas Film Critics Society: www.lvfcs.org/.

Victoria Alexander lives in Las Vegas, Nevada and answers every email at victoria.alexander.lv@gmail.com.

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