Three Scenes: Breaking Down The Details in Phantom Thread

Hooray! We’ve passed Oscar’s season (yay!) and now there’s no obligatory need to speculate on the merits of film for at least another six and a half months. Between the Oscars and Black Panthers, the cinematic world is going to be working through some heavy baggage. This provides ample space for a more intimate look at a number of films that would otherwise get looked over during this movie-crazy time of year. So I took some time to see some of the Best Picture nominees people will all but forget about in the next year. The one I was most excited about (and lived up to expectations) was Phantom Thread. First off, Paul Thomas Anderson is my favorite all-time director. And secondly, there’s always going to be some hype when you hear it’s Daniel Day-Lewis’ last movie. Initially, I thought of doing a post dedicated to Paul Thomas Anderson’s career trajectory, ending with an expanded analysis of Phantom Thread. But in writing about the movie, I ended up going down a rabbit hole. Realistically, the film deserves a platform all it’s own and thus, here were are.

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The man, the myth, the legend himself. I think you have to hand it to PTA. He’s managed to push the boundaries as both a director and a writer. I mean the man has eight nominations now in 20 years (but spanning only seven films)! I’d say that’s validating.

The film may very well be the best work Anderson has done yet (or at least, since the early stages of his career). It’s not hard to see why. The film is polished. It’s like the bathroom at a multi-Michelin starred restaurantyou could live in there. Every scene is so detailed in it’s composure, it’s hard to even decide where to start. So instead of building out a thesis paper, I’ve instead decided to look in-depth at three scenes which each emphasize the strengths of the film. No fundamental spoilers (the major one will not even be alluded to), but a lot of technical film jargon. It’s hard to discuss this movie without discussing the details, because this is a film so much about the microcosmic. Phantom Thread builds on Paul Thomas Anderson’s wide ouevre, his versatility, and his creativity. It’s a film that, if for no other reason, sincerely tackles the struggle of being an artist and, more intriguingly, the struggle to love one.

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Here’s our first scene of note. Check out that color treatment! I’m sure the lighting was forgiving that day, but come on. It does help that it’s filmed in the picturesque countryside. I think, had Daniel Day-Lewis not retired, he would only do films with bucolic settings.

Scene one happens early on, when our main character, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his new love interest (Vicky Krieps) are walking out in the English countryside at sunset. It really showcases how the setting and composition can frame the story as much as the characters. Right out of the gate, we have a character who is erm… tailor-made for Daniel Day-Lewis. He’s a refined, middle-aged, Londoner who’s artistic palette is born out of some pseudo-parentage imagined via Anna Wintour and Leonardo DaVinci. Oh, and he’s a damn persnickety man who’s married to his job and his routine. Sound familiar? Cause it feels a lot like Daniel Day-Lewis. Still, even given a role where he pretty much plays himself, Lewis’ manages to capitalize on every nuance, breathing a new life into even the most simple interactions. It’s probably the most you’ll watch a relatively silent guy onscreen with that much intensity. But that’s part of PTA’s (the cool way of referring to Paul Thomas Anderson. Ya know, for us cool film people?) brilliance. He knows how to steer the quiet moments of a film the keep you on edge. That’s what makes him a master filmmaker. Every frame contains a complicated beauty to dissect. This brief, country-side stroll scene is a few shots and a half-dozen lines of dialogue, but every element resonates the way it should. The cinematography captures a landscape that is beautiful, yet cold. The sun sets in the background as they discuss their future, perhaps a dim foreshadowing of a relationship which seems to blossom in twilight, but wilt under the strength of the full sun or moon. The shadows on their faces are harsh, but the color in the rest of the frame is vivid and encapsulating. Their tender moments warm your heart, despite the cold English coastline that surrounds them. The music is subtle, but swaying. It’s like a toned-down version of Ennio Morricone, where each note references a glance and thought. The diagetic sound is perhaps the greatest feature within the entire film (which is a damn shame, because it was certainly snubbed). The light sound of the wind and the coastline perfectly compliment the score and know to take a backseat when Alma speaks to Reynolds. The editing is as unnoticeable and as seamless as it needs to be. You never notice something particularly off within the Phantom Thread world. The set? I mean, do you get any more enchanting than the actual English coastline? I think not. The costumes speak for themselves, but you sort of expect excellence in that category considering you’re making a film about a clothing designer. And then there’s the acting. Without examining the subtle brilliance of Daniel Day-Lewis’ facial oscillations, I will say this regarding the acting: less is more. The space between words is just as poignant as the words themselves and leaves the audiences chewing the stillness for later digestion. The writing shows in her simple words, “Whatever you do, do it carefully.” I mean, come on! It’s all so subtle, but still so intense. And that, I think, is perhaps it’s greatest achievement. The entire scene – or more aptly called, vignette – spans the length of a few minutes, but those minutes last. And they connect to the greater themes of the film overall – the complex struggle between the love of a significant other and the love of a profession. 

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Geez louise. A girl’s gotta eat right? Dining scenes have always been an excellent platform to expand characters. Anderson really uses each dining scene in this film as a pivot point for their relationship. From the moment they meet (eating, of course) to the big twist at the end.

In another scene, Alma is making her breakfast with Reynolds and Cyril (Reynold’s sister – a Hitchcockian woman if I’ve ever seen one). The scene is supposed to see how Reynolds will adapt to change, kind of like the first experiment after the control test. Because we’ve seen Reynolds at his breakfast table before. There was a scene early on in the movie to show you exactly how this environment normally operates. He and Cyril quietly sat and drank tea, while he sketched designs for his latest piece. It was Anderson’s way of displaying the “simple”, rococo elegance that Reynolds maintains everyday through strict control. In effect, he gets to program his entire life down to the millisecond. With that kind of micromanaging, who needs friends? And Cyril is a compliant ally to this lifestyle, primarily because she is a beneficiary, but also secondarily because it doesn’t conflict with her way of doing things. Now, enter Alma, the woman who charms him with her subtle elegance. During their first encounter, she seems like a country breath of fresh air, having relieved him from the chaos of his London life and helped inspire new work. But now, at his breakfast table, a place decidedly under his own domain, Alma has become a nuisance. Anderson doesn’t have to try very hard to make this clear. The scene feels tense, despite it seeming so familiar. The set is simple, neat and elegant. You get the sense of order in Reynold’s life. Cyril is sitting exactly where she sat before. The score remains calm and playful, as it does in the scene prior (and in the film generally). This is how Anderson gives us a sense of status quo. But the camera suggests otherwise. The angles now seem a bit tighter, causing the space to feel a bit more constricted. The camera has also invaded Reynolds’ personal space and his face seems to reflect this. The sound in this scene makes a triumphant return. While the clinking and clanking of teacups and forks quietly dance in the foreground, the sound of a butterknife scraping bread is just loud enough for the audience to notice. Despite the action of buttering bread being a relatively quiet endeavor, Alma’s method of doing so has usurped every decibal from the tea-sipping and chair-squeaking. You feel Reynolds pain (and the editing captures this) as you’re constantly taken away from viewing his sketches to look at Alma, confused at how a bread knife could be so loud. In other words, through the camera and the sound mixing, you’re able to get inside Reynolds head and experience his break in serenity. And yet, you don’t exactly sympathize with him. This is where the beauty of the acting and writing comes in. For every scrape of the bread with the butterknife and every crinkled glance Reynolds shoots at Alma, the audience thinks, ‘Dude. The girl is trying to eat breakfast.’. Reynolds matter-of-factly tries to bring an end to the disruption by asking her to stop, but Alma refuses. The tension grows and the camera cuts to Cyril to examine them both. Reynolds eventually caves and pouts (as he often does), complaining that the interruption has thrown his entire mojo out of whack. But Alma seems unfazed. She has her own agenda and if they are to be compatible, they must learn each other’s rhythm. But that’s not in Reynolds’ agenda. For him, Alma is a source of inspiration and, when she’s not that, he’s not quite sure where she fits. The biggest change in Phantom Thread is the advancement from Alma as merely Reynolds’ muse, to the conductor behind his work – in effect, producing his art not as a passive entity, but an active player. This scene is the first time you get to see Alma outside of Reynolds’ placement of her and his response is interesting. As we learn at the end of the film, he needs this. The guy is wound tight. And she’s one of the few people to see him outside of his position as grandiose master-artist. Their recognition of this fact makes the whole thing work. When the whole scene comes together, you worry for their future. It’s reminiscent of Citizen Kane, where Charles and his wife sit in their opulent dining area as the tension grows in the space between them. This scene has a similar setup, but Alma is not your typical early twentieth century woman. She’s no passive player and her interactions with Reynolds leave a certain ambiguity that Orson Welles’ just didn’t.

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Well aren’t these two looking especially miserable? You don’t have to see any motion to know that these guys aren’t on the best of terms. It’s sad to think this is Daniel’s last role. The man was nominated more often than not for his performances. Still, if you’re gonna end on a role, I suppose it’s very full circle to end on the one most like yourself.

The film really excels through the it’s composition and use of sound. But all of that is bolstered by a strong story and smart, thought-out writing. That all becomes evident at a scene later in the film. We begin (again) at a dinner table. Alma has arranged a surprise evening for Reynolds as a gesture of love. She’s rid him of everyone else in his life so they can spend some much-needed time together. Emptying his house was no simple task. As the master of his craft, Reynolds has gathered the greatest hands to assist him on his projects. He’s kind of a ‘Steve Jobs’-esque leader who knows his people and knows how to utilize their skill-sets (even if he has to sacrifice their happiness). But in doing so, he’s created a series of human crutches around him, providing him endless comfort and convenience in his life which, rendering him vulnerable to any changes. In other words, the guy is like the popular girl in high school: nothing without the entourage. But Alma hopes to strip him of his armor; she wants to know the real Reynolds. The scene is set and as soon as he enters, the tension commences. Reynolds takes his seat, albeit uncomfortably, and tries to humor his muse. But the tables are turned. Reynolds is seeing someone else in the driver’s seat for the first time in a long time and it’s intimidating. Their dining area is dimly it, providing an intimate, yet ominous feel. It feels a little bit like Barry Lyndon. The lighting forces you to look deeply into the characters faces, noticing every crack and contour. The score is slow and sways, as if it is cautious of events yet to come. Alma tries to be charming. How difficult could that be considering she cooked the man a complex meal? Reynolds puts on his best face… at first. But as the the takes between Reynolds and Alma become quicker and quicker , their conversation becomes much more terse. The editing decidedly ramps up the pace in this scene and helps in building that tension. Reynolds is frank. He hates that his flow has been interrupted while his guard was down. This guy would be the last person on earth to throw a surprise birthday for. When the scene first begins, Reynolds is taken aback by the meal and insists on changing. While the costumes in the scene aren’t particularly of note, Reynolds’ costume change from typical work attire, to stiff, cold, formal clothes represents his rigid approach to the situation, as well as his discomfort with her spontaneity. Alma notices this and adjusts accordingly. Her blissful attempt at introducing him to something unexpected was met with scorn, and she too stiffens. The cinematography captures these changes. The camera shifts from staying fairly wide, capturing their shared dining area, to one much more enclosed. By the end of the scene, the camera is reserved for close ups of their face. This way, Anderson lets the audience dwell on his characters darkening thoughts. Both Krieps and Daniel Day-Lewis play off the mounting tension in the scene excellently. She questions his mood and he can no longer hide his disdain. It’s the following exchange that serves as a major turning point for the film. His complaint about the way she prepared  the food becomes a jumping off point for a number of underlying issues in their relationship. Why is he so cold? Why is she so invasive? Why did he bring her here? Why did she come? Why hasn’t he rid himself of her, like so many others? Their back and forth continues with such a natural flow, you know why Anderson spends all the time he does writing these things. It’s a perfect pivot for the series of underlying problems we’ve seen between these characters. It’s the tiny “invisible string” (or phantom thread) holding the entire scene together. The writing here is enough to keep the audience in a state of anxious ambiguity, while still providing ample material to the film’s many other elements. Without their exchange and it’s series of building issues, the scene might feel a bit drab. But that’s Paul Thomas Anderson for you. With him, there’s no such thing.

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And that, my friends, is a masterclass in sassery!I hope I’ve made a compelling enough case for this film. Enjoy it if for no other reason than the Shakespearean-level insults lobbed by a man in a cravat.

A simple story, yet another powerful installment in the world of PTA. Who else could make a film about a male dressmaker so fascinating? The same guy who made us understand the difficult dual nature of pornography, or delve into the psyche of a L.Ron Hubbard type, or – perhaps his greatest achievement – elicit a sincere and moving performance from Adam Sandler! The guy, like a modern Kubrick, is making his mark in every genre. And this, as his Barry Lyndon, may be forgotten, but never lost. Three scenes can never capture the entire spirit of a film, but perhaps we can use these small examples to split the seams and follow Anderson’s careful threading, searching for the origin of Phantom Thread, as well as appreciate the stitch-work as a whole. It’s truly haunting!

 

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