Tuesday, January 16, 2018

"Phantom Thread" Has Many Threads Including Some Characters Imbued With Fascist Strains

Daniel Day-Lewis and Lesley Manville in Paul Thomas Anderson's drama "Phantom Thread". 
Leslie Sparham/Focus Features

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Warning: This essay contains spoilers.  If you plan to see "Phantom Thread", and I highly recommend you see it in theaters (and in 70MM) then please be advised not to read any further.

The more I watch it, the more obvious it is that "Phantom Thread" echoes and emulates an era where fashion and fascism went hand in hand, influencing each other in deep ways that continue to resonate today.  Fascism is oft-defined as the merger of corporate and state interests.  There are degrees or strains however, of fascism that might be characterized in exclusivity, extreme order and singularity/uniqueness and "purity" that echo Hitler.

Mr. Anderson's excellent film is set in London in the early 1950s, just a few short years after the end of World War Two.  Hitler has been defeated.  The Allies are victorious.  Winston Churchill, who espoused racism, has been previously kicked out of power by the Conservatives, only to re-emerge as prime minister.  And there is a stubborn adherence among the well-heeled in this particular London to fascism and extreme order.  Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) personnifies this with his fashion House Of Woodcock, its ritualistic and fastidious brand worn by industry types, politicians and royalty that exemplifies the man himself.

Reynolds is uber-meticulous.  He looks at women less as romantic possibility than fashion design muses and by extension (though less obviously stated in the film) money-making opportunities.  One of the only times money is mentioned in "Phantom Thread" is by Cyril Woodcock (Lesley Manville), who brittly mentions that "Barbara Rose's money pays for this house."  It is Barbara Rose however, whom the House Of Woodcock cruelly renounces later on with a literal undressing.

The characters' reinforcing of fascism is exemplified with the commandeering of the hotel room Barbara Rose (Harriet Harris) is sleeping in.  Reynolds, barging in as if one of the Brown Shirts searching for Jewish people, orders Alma (Vicky Krieps) to  remove the dress the disgusted Reynolds has made.  The idea is that Barbara Rose, a slightly beyond average weight (and not "model weight"), is not fit to be wearing the fabric and fashions that Woodcock makes reeks of a fascist and racist idea of "purity".  

The close proximity of this previous scene to a scene of a press conference about the marriage of Barbara Rose to a Dominican president who is asked about "the selling of visas to the Jews" by a white male reporter is no accident.  These flashes of an era, and of anti-Jewish sentiment and fascistic leanings are finely and delicately dropped into or around the edges of the narrative.  Alma is seen wearing an expression etched in dismay.  It appears she is upset at Barbara Rose wearing a Woodcock dress that is ill-fitting on her, not necessarily upset at the throngs of British press asking questions that smack of anti-Jewish sentiment.

If nothing else where fascism or racist mannerisms are concerned "Phantom Thread" captures the bourgeoisie behaving as "polite" deplorables.  Ugliness of souls disguised as beauty when decorated in the Woodcock label.  One such character, a woman, tells Reynolds, "I don't mean to be racist but is this what they do in her country....?"  Reynolds mentions something to this same woman about a person with "shifty eyes".  Is he referring to someone Asian in a racist context?  Again, World War Two has not long ended.  The British Union Jack waves majestically.

If you listen carefully later in a scene in which Reynolds is at home alone a radio faintly blares a male-sounding voice that mentions a "colored man".  It is audible enough that you hear this at least twice.  It is not merely background audio.

Coco Chanel infamously made money off the Nazis during World War Two, and didn't exactly hide it.  She had channels in to high-level Germans who could have had an authoritative voice in diplomacy and a potential word in Mr. Churchill's ear. 

Is Reynolds Woodcock that kind of Coco Chanel-type power broker in "Phantom Thread"?  The immediate answer is no.  While he is a man who is something less than a full-blown socialite Reynolds is infatuated with work and fashion and appears less a power-broker than a dresser of stars and high-ranking officials.  He dresses them more than he advises them politically. 

Mr. Anderson's film has warmth and love deeply woven into most if not every frame, but it is a warmth laced with a caution and more than a bit of wicked savagery.  There is such adoration for Alma by Cyril in an initial meeting that has a fetishized and homoerotic tone.  Cyril smells Alma and proceeds to write down her measurements as Reynolds measures her.  He says things about giving her breasts, which usually prompts uncomfortable laughter from American audiences.  Cyril is very happy to see a half-naked and vulnerable Alma, and she sizes her up as the next Woodcock fashion capture. 

Alma later participates in fashion shows twirling around the room before prospective buyers of her fashions keep an intent eye on her.  I couldn't help thinking of an enslavement auction before white buyers.  The parallel was there -- without the physical brutality.

The strains of fascism and racism in some of the characters exists around the edges of "Phantom Thread" but sometimes it is served up audibly.  It is very possible to see the beauty and elegance of "Phantom Thread" -- which I certainly did, and also see the subtle strains of some characters engaging in fascist or racist comments or behavior. 

Fashion and fascism.  At times -- and certainly in the 1950s post-war time in some circles -- they are partners.

Related: "Phantom Thread" review

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