A LOOK AT 2017 FILMS NOMINATED FOR PROMINENT OSCARS
BY LEE PFEIFFER
The most over-rated of this year's Best Picture Oscar nominees is director Paul Thomas Anderson's "Phantom Thread", a bizarre, off-putting drama that succeeds in presenting unusual characters in offbeat situations. It's a film saturated in atmosphere and intriguing plot scenarios that ultimately never delivers on presenting satisfactory conclusions to any of them. Daniel Day Lewis, in what is his self-described final screen appearance before entering retirement, is Reynolds Woodcock, a London dressmaker who has become a legend in his own time. The House of Woodcock designs top-line dresses for the international jet set as well as royals from around the globe. He prides himself on his obsession with his work and he runs the business with his humorless, equally dedicated sister Cyril (Lesley Manville). Their design house is run like a military base with discipline and dedication expected of their devoted, if not too happy, employees. The only vices Reynolds allows himself are short-term relationships with women, which he enters into with charm and intensity only to inevitably discard his lover when he tires of her. The film opens with the story's leading female character, Alma (Vicky Krieps) relating in flashbacks how she became the object of Reynolds' desires. He meets her in a small country bed and breakfast where she is working as a nondescript waitress who he finds charming. That evening, he takes her to a lavish dinner and then brings her back to his house where she understandably presumes he will attempt to bed her. Instead, the quirky Reynolds immediately orders her to stand for a fitting in order for him to make her an exquisite dress. More bizarrely, this promising first date is further detoured by the arrival of Cyril who begins to assist in the measurements of the dress, though it's clear she resents the younger, more attractive woman. Why? The implication is that she might have an unhealthy sexual interest in her own brother but, like so many of strands of this "Thread", nothing concrete is ever presented regarding the origins of Reynolds' and Cyril's strange relationship. It's one of several promising story scenarios that are presented in a confusing and sometimes incomprehensible manner, while others are hinted at but dropped altogether. At times it feels as though Anderson simply tore up the last twenty pages of his script during production.
Over their courtship, Reynolds proves to be a charming, highly intelligent beau. Alma is obviously from humble origins but the script fails to tell us anything about her life, background, or even nationality (she speaks with a rather exotic accent that is difficult to pin down). Soon, she moves into Reynolds' apartment building, which doubles as his design studio. She begins to learn the clothing trade from the bottom up, resenting after a while that her status as the boss's lover doesn't get her any perks. She's treated the same as the rest of the obedient staff. Soon, Alma begins to see disturbing personal traits in her lover. He has many eccentricities. He requires complete silence at breakfast while he contemplates his design work The slightest deviation from his standards can result in him erupting in anger. The film traces these outbursts and how Reynolds and Alma alternate between having a fractious and loving relationship. Ultimately, they marry- but that is only the beginning of the psychological agony they will both endure before finding a bizarre scenario that pleases them both, based on the "Munchausen syndrome by proxy" (Google it) that involves a peaceful coexistence established through poisoning by mushrooms. If it sounds weird, the premise seems even weirder when played out on screen.
Throughout most of "Phantom Thread" I was duly impressed by the superb production design (the film is set sometime in the 1950s but doesn't specify exactly when) along with the wonderful classical/original score provided by Johnny Greenwood. Then there are the mesmerizing performances. Lewis is predictably superb but the real find is Vicky Krieps, of whom much more should be heard in the near future. Like Woodcock's design creations, every aspect of the film looks perfect so it's disappointing that director/screenwriter Thomas never allows the plot to come together in a satisfying manner. The key plot point involving mushrooms is a bit wacky and doesn't fit in with the general tone of the movie. It's like having Godzilla appear at the finale of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and there's no getting around the fact that poisoned mushrooms makes this feel like a watered down premise of that seen in "The Beguiled".
There's much to admire in "Phantom Thread" including the lush cinematography (also provided by an uncredited Paul Thomas Anderson). Anderson enjoys a loyal following among critics and film fans who enjoy the quirkiness of his scripts and direction. Consequently, I wonder if that devotion extends to overlooking the obvious flaws and tangled, unsatisfying aspects of his work, of which there are plenty in "Phantom Thread". This may not be the case of the emperor having no clothes, but at a minimum, he is scantily clad.