Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada
taught most of us never to look down at the fashion industry. Her verbal dressing down of Anne Hathaway's Andy, while she explains how her "unfashionable" purple sweater came into being, is one of the best bits of acting and sensible storytelling ever put to film.
While an understanding of the high-stakes world of high-end fashion will help you sink your teeth into Phantom Thread with ease, there is more to the movie than meets the eye. For, an exploration of the world of fashion is the least of this movie's concerns. At a point in the film, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) talks about how an artist leaves hidden bits and pieces in his work that only he/she is privy to. Director Paul Thomas Anderson, too, is one such artist.
First, the plot. Woodcock is a genius. He is obsessive, eccentric and controlling, but he is a genius. He works as a dressmaker for the rich, the fancy and the royalty of 1950s' Europe. His sister Cyril (Leslie Manville) manages the business side of his label while he handles the creative aspect. After falling out of love with his old muse, Reynolds finds and is smitten by a shy, young waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps). He anoints her as his new muse, has her live with him in his home/studio, and works tirelessly at crafting the most elegant and regal dresses in the known world using her body as the canvas. The movie follows their wildly erratic relationship as it oscillates between proximity and distance as they learn to accept each other and themselves for who they truly are.
Like an iceberg floating in the ocean, the movie's plot represents only 10% of what it has to offer. Losing yourself in the movie's beautiful yet claustrophobic world reveals the hidden 90%. If you were a film student, you would quite likely want to write your thesis based on this movie chronicling its many nuances, hidden symbols and layered story-telling. Since we cannot do all of that here, we'll discuss a couple of entry-level layers to the movie that are more easily noticeable.
One: The relationship between Woodcock and Alma is a subtle allegory for the relationship an artist and his/her fanbase/muses share. As time passes, a popular artist is conflicted by whether to stick to a genre to satiate his fanbase or to break free and evolve. How healthy is the relationship the two share if it stifles one in the fear of the other?
Two: The film takes a hard look at the close relationships we share. Specifically, it takes being with a significant other as an example. Before we start to share our lives with another person, we are set in our ways. We long for human connection as that fulfills a major need, but that might need us to change our ways. The Reynolds in us might be a person looking for a muse and not much else, but the Alma standing before us might look for more than that platonic relationship.
The question the film asks is, is it healthy to alter our way of living when someone else enters our lives? It forces you to face the dark and almost destructive underbellies holding your personal relationships afloat.
Indeed, the movie makes you look inward with every scene and sequence. It rarely even asks you a question, let alone give you the answers. It presents itself as a piece of art. It wants you to gaze at it and subsequently taint it with your personal experiences and viewpoints. No question asked or no answer unearthed is either right or wrong. The sheer amount of trust placed squarely on your shoulders is what makes this film excellent.
Speaking of excellent things, Sir Daniel Day-Lewis bows out of his stellar acting career in style. The man conveys more with a glance than most actors manage in an entire film. Watching him lose himself in his craft is a treat to both a film novice and an aficionado. The walk, the talk, the mannerisms, the hypnotic brilliance of his character work and his sartorial acumen are all readily available to be savoured.
Going toe to toe with him in every scene are Vicky Krieps and Leslie Manville. The women act as the equally dark and eccentric counterbalances to Day-Lewis' Reynolds. This might be the first story in a long while where a yang-yang combination works to create harmony.
The story is set in an elegantly designed house that is brilliantly rendered as a claustrophobic nightmare. This is achieved in no small part due to the efforts of the set decorators, designers, prop masters and the many other unsung heroes of every movie who bring their A-game to this one. The film's arresting camerawork, deliberate editing, layered shot structure, the cold, detached aura it carries with itself, and the grain inhabiting every shot are all stark reminders that the men and women behind the camera know their craft, and are more than pleased to have us indulge in their passion.
The highest of praise goes to Jonny Greenwood's score that is both mesmerizing and terrifying in equal parts. The guitarist from Radiohead offers up a heaping helping of his brand of unsettling music to a movie that prides itself on being unsettling. Everything from the sound of an operatic piano to that of a slice of toast being buttered is meticulously crafted. Each note adds to the film's overall narrative in subtle ways. Indeed, there are many rewards to be found when you pay as much attention to watching the movie as its makers did while crafting it.
For a film so heavily and conservatively covered in clothing, it carries with itself a sense of nakedness. Unlike 2017's Mother! or Stanley Kubrick's spellbinding Eyes Wide Shut, the movie chooses not to shock you into making you notice its narrative and thematic significance. It instead lulls you into a false sense of security and then allows you to unlock, undress and explore your psyche as the director explores his characters. The drawbacks associated with this method of storytelling are well-documented, and for good reason. I, for one, cannot stand The Unbearable Lightness Of Being.
But each of us has our own unique perspective. When an unjudgemental piece of art asks us to imprint our experiences onto it, all it takes to be hooked is for the jagged edges to align.