Phantom Thread

In Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, people are collections of conflicting impulses that express themselves through behavioral patterns, driven less by will than they are by conscious and unconscious desire. They collide into one another like atoms, sometimes repelling one another, sometimes establishing bonds and forming new stable (or unstable) compounds. When Anderson’s films explore landscapes like that of the pornography industry or religious cults, they remain less interested in big, capital-letter ideas like Religion and Capitalism than they do in the way industries and communities function as expressions of collective behavioral patterns. Over the course of his career, Anderson’s films turn ever more to the mysteries inherent to faces and physical gestures, the portals by which we glimpse the chaos of the human mind.

Anderson’s latest feature serves as an extension of a journey he began in 2007’s There Will Be Blood. Often misapprehended as a Big Metaphor Movie, Blood was less of an allegory than it was a character study, following oil prospector Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), as he attempts and fails to establish social bonds with those around him. Starting with Blood, Anderson’s films feel increasingly impressionistic and improvised, roaming more and more freely in their observation of human activity. The ebbs and flows of Blood remain strange and unpredictable, a film of odd time jumps and loose ends. The consistent focal point is Day-Lewis, who, through Plainview’s utterances and postures, paints a portrait of gradual degradation. Detached from the human beings that surround him, Plainview’s behavioral pattern reinforces itself so much that he de-evolves. The film’s allusions to 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s Darwinian landscape achieve resolution in the film’s final scene, wherein Plainview completes the transformation from human to ape.

Anderson’s subsequent feature, The Master, traced the relationship between a cult leader, Lancaster Dodd, and the object of his fascination, a mentally troubled young man named Freddie. Freddie, as played by Joaquin Phoenix, may be the closest thing in any of Anderson’s films to a creature of pure animalistic impulse, all twitchy energy and earthy desire. His presence brings out a bit of the animal in Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Dodd, too, who both loves Freddie for his freedom from decorum and because he sees in Freddie the fulfillment of his own creative project. Freddie remains in Dodd’s orbit for some time, but Dodd cannot satisfy him, and so Freddie finds satisfaction through more primal means than the dogmas and rituals of Dodd’s cult.

Anderson brought Phoenix over to his next feature, Inherent Vice, where he plays stoner detective Larry “Doc” Sportello. Vice‘s neo-noir shaggy-dog story allowed Anderson to explore the architecture of American society as a labyrinth both extending from and constraining a colorful spectrum of people-animals, each caught in the throes of their own peculiar madness. Its existential anxieties about society and the self are ultimately one and the same. Both society and the individual remain fundamentally unfathomable, following an uncertain path to an uncertain destination. Knowledge of either is, at best, provisional.

Anderson’s latest feature, Phantom Thread, takes the form of chamber drama, an appropriate progression for a filmmaker so fascinated with the revelatory power of human gesture. The intimacy of the form narrows and tightens Anderson’s gaze–he has never been so careful–as he observes its central trio, finding the madness in a world of beautiful surfaces. Daniel Day-Lewis once again re-teams with Anderson, appearing here as dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock, who, with the aid and guidance of his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), maintains the prestigious House of Woodcock. When he becomes infatuated with a girl named Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps), his life is thrown into disarray.

Anderson, who has always been something of a sensualist, takes great delight and pleasure in surveying Woodcock’s work, in exploring the ecstasies of its lines and textures. These dresses are not just objects, but vessels of personality. They’re the intimate, sensual expression of Reynolds himself. Both Alma and Cyril partner with Reynolds in his work; he requires both of them to focus his creative energies.

Things begin to strain as Alma’s presence realigns Reynolds’ world, unbalancing the power dynamics that have sustained it. These pivots and shifts, some comic, some suspenseful, play out in tightly written scenes wherein much is left unsaid. In Day-Lewis, Krieps, and Manville, Anderson has three extraordinary faces that can say everything without uttering anything.

Phantom Thread offers a vision of romance rooted in evolving co-dependency. Phantom Thread‘s final line, uttered by Daniel Day-Lewis, gestures back toward Daniel Plainview’s final declaration from There Will Be Blood. In Phantom Thread, though, the emphasis has shifted: it is not an ending, but a new beginning. A bond has been formed. A new pattern emerges.

Looking Back: The Immigrant

James Gray’s new film, The Lost City of Z, is currently showing in theaters. I thought it might be worthwhile to dust-off my review of his previous picture, 2013’s The Immigrant.

James Gray’s The Immigrant has one truly sublime moment: a performance by operatic tenor Enrico Caruso for the poor souls stuck in limbo on Ellis Island. Caruso’s voice soars and fills the space of the sparse, uninviting room in which he performs, and at once the world is stunningly, astonishingly alive with music. This moment recreates an actual historical event, finding power and mystery in the incongruity of human existence.

According to Gray, The Immigrant is an attempt to capture something of opera’s sincerity and emotional resonance (it was inspired by Puccini’s agonizingly tender Suor Angelica). If nothing else, Gray certainly succeeds in capturing opera’s earnestness. The Immigrant delivers old-fashioned melodrama with a very straight face; there’s more than a touch of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables here in its protagonist’s beatific suffering and in the film’s final, surprisingly merciful moments. If only The Immigrant had more passion.

The story centers on the seedy underbelly of New York in 1921, but the tactile reality of the period is sublimated beneath restrained, tasteful beauty. Gray’s direction is ever at a remove from the events on screen, unwilling to break from its stately manner to surprise or unsettle. The Immigrant‘s parade of prostitutes seems positively demure in the golden glow of Darius Khondji’s cinematography, and Chris Spelman’s score accentuates the proceedings with quotes from opera scores by Puccini and Wagner. But even Spelman’s score shies away from emphatic emotion. It’s as though Gray was so petrified of sensationalism that he embalmed his film instead.

Opera, after all, thrives on its expressiveness: it’s sincere, but bold and immediate, interested in the vast emotional peaks of passion and hate, love and desire. The wandering script certainly tries to find such moments, but never guides its characters in ways that make these moments reverberate. It’s evident from the film’s conclusion (which, to its credit, features one of cinema’s most magnificent shots, and one for which Khondji deserves an Oscar nomination) that what Gray hopes to achieve a sense of of spiritual awakening in the wake of unrelenting grief, but he never quite finds the path to that destination.

Perhaps, with a stronger script and a shift in Gray’s direction direction, the film’s central trio of performers (Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner) might have balanced out Gray’s reserved aesthetic approach. The script only begins to adopt its more melodramatic form about halfway through the film, as the film’s victimized, desperate protagonist, Ewa, finds herself caught between two cousins, Bruno and Emil, both of them manipulators who offer false promises of hope. It’s a dynamic that is insufficently balanced and explored.

Phoenix invests Bruno, Ewa’s manipulative pimp, with all the manic energy of his performance in The Master, but the role of Bruno actually demands for something more delicate and nuanced. His earliest scenes, where he strikes an appropriate balance of charm and menace, are the most promising, but the script unfortunately shifts Bruno from manipulator to madman. Released from his constraints, Phoenix’s energy essentially steamrolls over the character, and so when we get to the finale, which demands a great deal of precision, the character is awash in a sea of mannerisms and grunts that obscures, rather than clarifies, the character’s complexity and emotional entanglement.

As Bruno’s cousin, Emil, Renner is the film’s most charismatic presence, a charming rogue with a a career as a touring magician. For the dominant amount of his screentime, the film positions him as the kinder, more viable love interest to Phoenix’s Bruno (Renner’s introduction coincides with Caruso’s performance at Ellis Island, signalling the hope he represents). His courtship of Ewa plays out with tedious inevitability, and only in his final scene does the film effectively move past the bullet points of their relationship and reveal a dark undercurrent of sadism running beneath his boyish exterior. It’s too little, too late, though, and rather than play with that tension, the film abruptly sidelines him.

Then there’s Marion Cotillard, who, as Ewa, continually modulates between wide-eyed anguish and cold determination as Ewa suffers in hopes of freeing of her sister (who is effectively imprisoned on Ellis Island immediately after their arrival). Gray seems rarely interested in Ewa as a person beyond her tragic circumstances, with Khondji’s lens continually framing her as an unearthly icon of suffering. The film offers too few glimpses of the Ewa who existed before this tragedy, of an Ewa with different dreams and pleasures. Of all the film’s failings, this is perhaps its most unfortunate. Only in seeing Ewa as a person beyond her immediate struggle can we truly appreciate the depths of her anguish. If The Immigrant is, as Gray claims, “a verismo opera written for an actress,” it’s one that never gives its lead actress an aria.