Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread ★★

"They see the same landscape, from the same space. Their difference would be the subject of the film." - Marguerite Duras, Le Camion

What remains fascinating to me about Phantom Thread in retrospect that it more or less confirms that Anderson doesn't have many ideas of his own - as far as thematic functionality goes one can watch Anderson's influences like Hitchcock's Rebecca, Ophuls' Caught or Sternberg's Devil and see much of the same film, with only slight twists and turns. Yet this is supplemented by the directorial approach he started in The Master: essentially, the collaborators build the film: Day-Lewis, Krieps, & Manville, Greenwood and Mark Bridges, while Anderson works more as conductor than composer.

What's interesting here as well is that, unlike The Master, which (almost) had a sense of thematic unity - that is to say, actual ideas - the entirety of Phantom Thread is driven by the exchange and rejection of energy between Day-Lewis and Kreips interactions (no wonder the film is dedicated to Jonathan Demme!) while Anderson's on-screen contributions seem limited to everything around the actors - decor, colour, framing etc - the camera is never expressive but aspires to a dreamlike sensation (combined with the music), where the actors perform their drama. What's striking is that this remains a cohesive film - maybe the single most cohesive theatrical premiere last year! A part of this comes down to the writing - we know Day-Lewis was an uncredited co-writer, and what remains interesting is that while the power dynamics of the previously mentioned films remain almost unchanged, the outcomes of them are almost always the inverse - this is a surprisingly hopeful film about having a dominant partner and fighting to find balance within the relationship. A great example is the New Years' Party sequence - which is almost shot-for-shot pulled from the opening of Sternberg's Devil is a Woman - but instead of one of the protagonists being enveloped within their gaze at Dietrich, here Day-Lewis lets go of his domineering perspective: to my mind it's the best scene of Anderson's career.

In alot of ways Phantom Thread is very self-aware film about transitioning from a specifically male way of looking into a realm of deeper equality between genders within this specific, rich and white, culture. I'm reminded of Duras's Le Camion: "They see the same landscape, from the same space. Their difference would be the subject of the film." But there is a goal here that sets it slightly apart (and makes the film still worth seeing in spite of its influences) - the desire for both partners to exist on an equal landscape.

There are some moments which don't quite work for me - the belaboured intensity of Greenwood's Phantom Thread III coming in at a period of non-communication between the two seemed to me almost comically obtuse. But then isn't that the same intensity one feels upon such deadlocks? So I don't know - I can't really complain. Another interesting thing is that Anderson's best moments as a director come during relative silence - no words are spoken in the NYE sequence (the only traditional 'set-piece' within the film) and the final mushroom sequence: the latter, again driven by the performances, but all the more remarkable here -it's driven by what seems just the slightest twitch or movement on an actors face. Yet, what struck me all the moreso here is the last shot of Alma's smile before the dialogue begins - there's a warmth and tone to the image itself which only amplifies this smile: it's the kind of thing you would see in a film of the 30s or 40s, but never today. Props to Anderson - there are images in this film that could have only been created on 35mm, far from the fetishizing so many directors do with the format today.

But still, there's the nagging impulse stemming from these initial three examples of Anderson's influences here, only the first having been highly regarded at its time. Of course, being a grab bag of other films means nothing necessarily if the film still works - and it does. But at the same time one is reminded not of how well those mechanics work today, but how ahead of their time those latter two films were, while this is merely of the present.

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