Needling

Probably good to not read anything about Paul Thomas Anderson’s PHANTOM THREAD before seeing it.

After seeing it, read David Ehrenstein’s take-down. It’s a necessary argument to have. I can’t gainsay it. Nevertheless, with reservations, I enjoyed the film itself.

I think, if this is “straightwashing,” it’s a chickenshit thing to do. I think there’s a possible reading of the film where Daniel Day-Lewis’ Reynolds Woodcock is NOT straight. I don’t really see the point of his “confirmed bachelor” line if he’s hetero. And given what his marriage turns out to involve, he’s definitely not vanilla. But Mr. Ehrenstein is the expert here, and if this doesn’t seem a possible reading to him, I suspect he’s right. I think his instinct, that the director and star don’t have the required insight into the minds of gay men obsessed with women. They can only do the latter part.

Let’s face it, the big secret about the Woodcock’s marital life revolves around a sort of fetish/ritual that I do not believe has ever been practiced by any couple, ever. And while one hesitates to rule any kink or twist of human behaviour beyond the bounds of possibility, this one seems like the auto smash fetish in the Cronenberg/Ballard CRASH — an imaginary syndrome that might one day come into being but isn’t here yet. Which is probably a good thing.

So, given that the movie raises the spectre of homosexuality and then chastely sweeps it under the carpet, and given that it devotes its considerable runtime to meticulously detailing the workings of a relationship ultimately revealed to be based on something ridiculous, why did I enjoy it? It’s that detailing. And the performances. And the loving recreation of time and place. And Jonny Greenwood’s music. And the acting, of course.

Is this a film about Hitchcock, in some way? A thin and angry Hitchcock? The name “Woodcock,” coupled with the name “Alma,” seem to suggest it. But then you’d expect a torturous makeover to be part of Reynolds’ relationship with Alma, which we don’t really get. But we do get a brace of shots brazenly quoting PSYCHO as Reynolds spyholes his own fashion show. So that seems like a nod. Alma really is Alma, not Tippi — she’s the woman who enables her husband’s life and art.

The third main character’s name, Cyril (Lesley Manville, all tight smiles but not entirely without warmth), is peculiar because it’s only ever a man’s name. This unmarried sister may well be coded gay. And Anderson may have thought of using the male-sounding but ambisexual name “Cecil,” but that wouldn’t do as that was Daniel Day-Lewis’ actual dad’s name (the poet laureate and author of The Smiler with a Knife).

I liked this film, really, because of scenes like the first post-coital (?) breakfast. I was crying with laughter. All the arguments are hilarious, especially the way Vicki Krieps resorts to just making contemptuous NOISES. PFF!

I first saw VK in the film PTA saw her in — THE CHAMBERMAID LYNN. It was submitted to Edinburgh International Film Festival, where I work as a submissions editor (I should be viewing screeners RIGHT NOW). In it, she plays a chambermaid who takes to hiding in guests’ rooms and watching what they get up to in “private.” She has one or two tippy-toe scenes in PT which reminded me strongly of this. I gave the odd film an A partly because of her astonishingly muted and natural performance. An A means the film gets passed up the food chain to somebody higher up… my memory was that it then got turned down, but I’m wrong — we screened it. I may have contributed something to the magnificent Fraulein Krieps’ career!

One of the things Krieps does, in her very first scene, is an apparently real, real-time facial blush. And apparently they kept her isolated from D-Day Lewis until it was time for this scene, so this was her actual first meeting with him. I can only think of two comparisons — (1) Lenny Montana, playing Luca Brassi, turns purple when he’s strangled in THE GODFATHER. They were thinking of getting Dick Smith to invent some kind of makeup trick for this, but the actor was a former wrestler with excellent breath control so he just DID IT. And (2) I’m told that Hume Cronyn could blush on command. “How did you do that?” “I just made myself blush.” A response that’s automatic in every other human being ever, was something that fine thespian could turn on and off at will.

Krieps doesn’t wear makeup most of the time in this film, and seems to flush  with ease. She’s a natural reddener.

As for D-Day himself, he’s excellent — more stylised than Krieps (who is practically playing Alma as a 21st-century woman gone astray in the 50s) but hitting wonderful and surprising notes all the time. Convincing in the moment even if his character adds up tp implausible contradictions and evasions. I guess he has to retire now before his hands get any hairier. Those are some very hairy hands.

The film may cop out of a truthful and frank portrayal of the real men (all gay) who were Britain’s top dressmakers, but it plays fair with its title: we get an actual phantom. It’s Reynolds’ dear old mum, standing with implacable solidity against a wall, visible to nobody but him. This is despite PTA and DDL being both father-obsessives — PTA named his company, Ghoulardi, after his horror-host pop, while DDL fled a West End production after seeing an apparition of his late father, the poet. That was HAMLET. This might be called OMELETTE. I wonder if Lewis advised on the correct appearance of spectral parents. She’s very compelling.

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13 Responses to “Needling”

  1. Eggscellent review. That Psycho shot is followed immediately by a Lodger reference I think – the fashion show.

  2. Oh, excellent. 1960 Hitch looks back on 1927 Hitch!

  3. Merci M. Cairns! One of the many problems related to PTA’s inability to imagine much less deal with the relationships gay artists and the women who inspire them (in this case fashion designers, but it well could be other like film directors such as Visconti and more recently Andre Techine) is the fashion designs a film like this is supposedly all about. Rather than hire a REAL fashion designer PTA uses his usual costumer. Thus the clothes we see are adequate to specific scenes but in no ay important overall. Contrast this with the Chanel suit Romy Schneider wears in Visconti’s episode of “Boccacio ’70” and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

  4. Regarding the Hitchcock sampling/homages I would say “Rebecca” more than “Psycho” or “The Lodger.”

    A fortiori forget Hitch. The S&M relationship we see unfold her is more inspired by the current potboiler “50 Shades of Gray” (S&M “Lite” for the readers of “Good Housekeeping.” )

  5. Fiona destroys Fifty Shades: https://dcairns.wordpress.com/2015/02/22/breathing-life-into-a-turd/

    Rebecca: good call. The Mrs Danvers (who or WHAT was Mr Danvers???) connection is clear. The Psycho thing is merely a specific shot sequence, which seems intended to make us think along Hitchcockian lines, for whatever reason.

    Yes, the clothes were very credible, but rarely stunning. But in most films about fashion it’s almost a rule that the clothes be terrible, so this was an improvement.

    I did like the women we see MAKING the clothes, and J-P Gaultier, who is a big fan of Becker’s Falbalas because of the attention shown to actual craft, may have enjoyed that aspect too. But would probably wonder why, in this day and age, we can’t have an actual big gay homosexual protagonist in this film.

  6. Indeed!

    There’s a marvelous documentary about Yves Saint-Laurent closing up show. We see him at his salon going through sketches and musing about the women he’s designed for. Then there’s a sequence where one of the most important of them — Catherine Deneuve — shows up for a fitting. Saint Laurent’s seamstress ladies are all over her making final adjustments

    As for Yves out of the salon, here’s a scene from one of the two biopics with Gapard Ulliel as Yves and Louis Garrel as the boytoy he shared with Karl Lagerfeld.

  7. PTA tends to draw more from movies and movie history than actual life and actual history.

    Boogie Nights from Scorsese, Magnolia drew from Short Cuts and other Altman movies. There Will Be Blood is a pendant for John Huston films and performances, as well as Clint Eastwood’s own pendant White Hunter Black Heart. The Master also drew from Huston’s war documentaries (for reasons I can’t fathom since it doesn’t really have anything to do with the rest of the film).

    Phantom Thread seems to have similar issues. It’s not actually based on any tangible history of the period, and it’s kind of a personal projection outward based on reflections and stuff cobbled across film history. Strangely the English film that Anderson cites most often is Powell-Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going!

  8. There’s a lap dissolve of snow which seems very Colonel Blimp.

    PTA’s films are drawn from movies, yes, Yet,but the converse can also be true: Boogie Nights draws closely on the biography of John Holmes, and The Master is a roman a clef about L Ron Hubbard. But he always treats his stories in a perverse way, so the squalid tragedy of Holmes’ life gets an inexplicable happy ending arriving out of nowhere, and while everyone expected a takedown of Scientology (PTA reputedly had friends destroyed by the cult), what we get is a lot more complex, with a hero so completely messed-up, joining a cult may be the best thing that could have happened to him.

  9. With PTA, actual history loses out to cinephile fantasy and projection in a way, which is not uncommon or disqualifying admittedly, since it can be said of many film-makers and it’s arguably a generational thing (Tarantino has the same problem).

    Ultimately, The Master doesn’t really have anything to say about Scientology, nor does it say that there’s nothing to say about Scientology which would probably be the only way to make that kind of movie. I think the movie would have worked much better if instead of Philip Seymour Hoffmann, it was Joaquin Phoenix who founded that cult. And there’s a dissonance between how the film treats Hoffmann’s character and Phoenix’s. And fundamentally, the film’s treatment of Phoenix’s character is a kind of Hollywood psychosis and not a real kind and in the way that PTA appropriates Huston’s sincere and compassionate Let There Be Light which deals with real veterans suffering with actual issues for his fantasy, he’s arguably doing something more distasteful than what Tarantino was accused of for IB. In that light, the straightwashing and casual slandering of the fashion industry’s leading lights via side-gloss is not unprecedented.

  10. I haven’t seen the film yet, but if it is cinematically-inspired, like PTA’s films often are, might the source be Jacques Becker’s Falbalas, with its definitely hetero dress designer hero’s obsessive love?

  11. Falbalas is ultra-obscure in general. And in any case, as David Ehrenstein’s article points out, PTA has consistently name-dropped fashion designers as inspirations in blithe indifference that he is appropriating them for a hetero-projection of the fashion world listing a litany of designers as influences and reference points for his character, all of whom were gay. So I don’t think poor Monsieur Becker can become his get out of jail for free card.

  12. But I do think PTA has seen lots of films and Falbalas may be among them. Especially if he saw Tavernier’s French cinema doc, which quotes it approvingly.

    But no, it doesn’t work as an excuse.

    I’d like to see an interviewer ask him or DDL flat-out: Why isn’t Reynolds Woodcock apparently gay? Not even as an accusation, just to get his explanation of it.

  13. I managed to see Phantom Thread pretty much unspoiled, and there was never any doubt in my mind that Reynolds Woodcock was homosexual. Maybe in denial about it, but definitely homosexual, and nothing that happened in the film (including him marrying Alma and having sex with her) disabused me of that notion.

    Any more open display or acknowledgement of his homosexuality would have seemed (in my opinion) to have been an anachronism in a film that otherwise cleaved with astonishing accuracy not just to the costumes, decor and dialogue of the era, but also to the mindset, in a way I found quite Proustian, in that it effectively transported me back to an era I had mostly forgotten.

    Is there a film to be made in which the homosexuality of 1950s fashion designers is treated more openly? Of course, but it wasn’t this film, and I’m slightly bemused by criticism that PTA ought to have taken that on board.

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