Wednesday, February 14, 2018

OSCAR WATCH: Phantom Thread

There's always a palpable buzz surrounding the announcement of a new Paul Thomas Anderson film. Indeed, I vividly recall my own excitement in anticipation of the world premiere of "Inherent Vice" a few years ago. Naturally, his mysterious new film "Phantom Thread" became another must-see appointment, particularly when it was initially described as an "arthouse Fifty Shades of Grey". Coincidentally, I finally watched this Best Picture contender as the final "Fifty Shades" installment is now playing in theaters. And ultimately, it provided a fascinating lens through which to view this exquisite film.

"Phantom Thread" revolves around a man named Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), the creative genius behind his eponymously titled fashion label "The House of Woodcock". It is 1950s London and his custom designs are in vogue for the women of the upper class. With the aid of his trusted sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), he maintains a strict daily regimen to fuel his creativity. One day however, he meets an unassuming waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps). He is immediately beguiled by her and she soon becomes his muse and lover. But the younger woman's humble background and spontaneous personality are at odds with Reynold's carefully tailored lifestyle, threatening to disrupt his work and his entire sense of self.

As mentioned earlier, the central relationship that develops in "Phantom Thread" is thoroughly intriguing in the way it explores power dynamics between men and women. While the "Fifty Shades of Grey" comparison isn't as obvious until the more depraved final act, the script is constantly delving into the psychology of these two distinct individuals played brilliantly by Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps. As always, Day-Lewis puts in another terrific performance (garnering another Best Actor nod), burrowing into the complicated headspace of his character. There's a boyish vulnerability to his outwardly confident Reynolds, which he conveys with a skilful combination of posh delicacy and unwavering intensity. Meanwhile, Kreips proves to be a great scene partner, beautifully channeling her character's inner strength and "fish out of water" naivety.

Aside from the relationship drama, the film works on several different levels. Most evidently, it is also a gorgeous celebration of fashion, not just on an aesthetic level, but also for its power to transform a person's mood and personality. Indeed, one could argue that Lesley Manville's standout performance (rightfully nominated for Best Supporting Actress) was aided significantly by Mark Bridges's deservedly Oscar-nominated Costume Design, the sleek elegance of which gave her a poise rarely seen in her appearances in Mike Leigh's working class dramas. Together with Krieps, she subverts the usual character study of egotistical but brilliant men. The film truly shines through its excellent female characters, who challenge the central protagonist in exciting ways.

Ultimately, the various tensions between gender and class make for a riveting viewing experience. As "Phantom Thread" navigates this posh, fanciful world under the brilliant direction of Paul Thomas Anderson, you get the feeling that you are in good hands. Even when it goes to dark places in the end, there's a joy that comes from seeing all these excellent components come together. From the imperfect romance, the luscious score or even just the fancy dresses, it's a real treat. It provides cinematic ecstasy and titillation that the "Fifty Shades" franchise could only aspire to.

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