A middle-aged man looks insistently at a young woman. He doesn’t speak. He is smiling slightly, playing with her, but also seeking to trouble her. After a moment she says: ‘If you want to have a staring contest with me, you will lose.’ After a much longer moment he laughs. Has he found his match? Does she understand him, or does she just know how to play this particular game?
The film in which this scene occurs, and in which a whole series of versions of it are offered to us, is Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, hailed as a masterpiece by some critics and viewers and deemed an annoying waste of time by others. I would say it’s a staring contest we can’t win. But we can’t lose either. The film is too wandering and awkward to be a masterpiece, but one of its virtues is that we don’t quite know what has happened, either in the story or to us, and we go on wanting to know.
We continue to stare: at faces, clothes, a vintage car, the fancy interiors of an expensive house, muffins, teapots, needles, faces and clothes again. And to listen. Phantom Thread has one of the most obtrusive musical tracks we have heard in years, an aural version of a staring contest. It’s by Jonny Greenwood, who has worked with Anderson on all his full-length films since There Will Be Blood (2007). It’s attractive, lyrical, but busy, swamping everything in sound, never leaving the moods of the film alone.
Perhaps they can’t bear to be alone. The music suggests something dramatic is going on all the time, but the acting and the dialogue and the shooting all do their best to hide whatever it is. A redefinition of drama, we could say.
The time and place are London and the English South-West in the 1950s. Reynolds Woodcock is a fashion designer, furnisher of ghastly, elaborate, stiff dresses to international royalty and other sufficiently rich people. Some of the film’s best scenes just show us the workplace, a London house where a small horde of elderly ladies come and sew their days away, and sometimes their nights. Another fine scene shows the self-adulation of the industry. A woman with enough money to buy a Woodcock dress but not enough manners not to get drunk on her wedding night has her dress stripped from her as she snores. The formerly staring girl, now Woodcock’s model and mistress, says: ‘It’s no business of ours what Mrs Rose does with her life but she can no longer behave like this and be dressed by the House of Woodcock.’
The girl is Alma, whom we and Woodcock first meet in a country hotel, where he is having breakfast and she is a waitress. In the evening they have dinner together, roar around in his sports car, and retire to his studio, where he asks her to model a dress he is working on. They walk hand in hand through the streets of the small coastal town – Woodcock needed a break from the stress of London and a girlfriend he no longer wanted to see – and he says he has been looking for her for a long time. He is so charming and relaxed throughout this sequence, so infinitely likeable and unhaunted, that he would be creepy even if we didn’t know anything else about him. We know how petulant he can be, though, even though his petulance has a kind of miniature grandeur. Refusing to listen to anything his old girlfriend wants to say, he attacks her with a spoiled artist’s epigram: ‘I cannot start my day with a confrontation. I simply have no time for confrontations.’
The acting in the film is amazing – as is Anderson’s direction of the actors, however unsteady the film’s general grip is on what it’s about. Daniel Day-Lewis, in what we hope is not his last film, is Woodcock, so innocent and engaging at moments, so nasty and tyrannical at others, that we may find ourselves believing the character is a single person only because there is just the one actor. Vicky Krieps is Alma, an open-faced, rather plain woman who can look beautiful in the right light, whose peculiar gift is to be susceptible to Woodcock’s style, and to be loyal to him, while clinging to a stubborn common sense that is alien to any artist mythology.
Woodcock is an elderly child, unable to separate himself emotionally from his dead mother, served and managed by his spinster sister, Cyril, magnificently played by Lesley Manville as a sort of cross between a prison warden and a chief executive. One critic compares her role to that of Mrs Danvers in Rebecca. Even with these two companions, spiritual and earthly, Woodcock is still in need of another female aide, one he can alternately patronise and yell at, as he certainly can’t with his mother and sister. At one point he tries to pick a quarrel with Cyril on the subject of Alma. Cyril sips her tea, and without looking at him delivers one of the film’s finest lines, not subtle, but not what we expect from the orderly Cyril either: ‘Don’t pick a fight with me, you won’t come out alive. I’ll go right through you, and you’ll end up on the floor.’ This is a moment where the script matches the music.
In Alma, though, Woodcock encounters a resistance he was not prepared for, and that changes his life. This happens in three stages, which we could think of as comic, operatic and gothic. The first occurs at breakfast, when Alma makes too much noise putting her cup down and buttering her toast. Or at least Woodcock thinks she makes too much noise, and the soundtrack is on his side. Alma insists she is behaving quite normally, and Cyril suggests she might in future want to have her breakfast in another room.
In the operatic moment (we could also call it a scene of grand bathos or even grand guignol), Alma decides to have a quiet evening alone with Woodcock and offer him her version of his favourite food – the personal touch. She empties the house of loitering seamstresses and even Cyril goes along. Woodcock comes home and, far from settling in for a romantic dîner à deux, panics and rages and says he feels ambushed. And even though he does sit down to eat, and changes his register of abuse, things don’t get better. The asparagus is cooked with butter not oil and vinegar, and he can’t bear it. At first he says nothing. Then he says grimly: ‘I’m admiring my own gallantry for eating it the way you prepared it.’ Things finally get so bad – or so ideally terrible, if you prefer – that they have to get married. The self-styled ‘incurable bachelor’ is a helpless husband.
But then Alma, if not helpless, becomes an excluded and deeply unhappy wife. She finds no joy in rebellion, in going to the Chelsea Arts Ball without him. Her only resource is what we might call the ingenuity of convention. She wants to be a semi-submissive loving partner, she wants a husband who needs her. And this is where the film turns gothic.
Alma creates the need by almost killing Woodcock and allowing no one else to look after him while he faints and sweats and lies on his bed. She has added a few poisonous mushrooms to the evening meal. You would think this might be the end but it isn’t. He recovers, goes back to his old ways, and the marriage is as much of a wreck as ever. Alma is a stranger in her own house, not even a servant of the master – the title of an earlier film of Anderson’s comes readily to mind. She turns to the mushrooms again, with a milder but still frightening effect, only this time Woodcock understands what she has done. He smiles, as if he likes this new mode of intimacy and dependence, and something like happiness descends on the movie. Abetted by the music, of course.
Can we imagine a long future for this couple? The film can, and does, but the picture is so hackneyed – pram, baby, walk in the park – that it has to be a dream, or an irony.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.