Wednesday, January 17, 2018

A Boy's Best Friend Is The Dresses He Designs

Vicky Krieps as Alma and Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds in Paul Thomas Anderson's drama "Phantom Thread". 
Leslie Sparham/Focus Features

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Wednesday, January 17, 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.

(This is the second in a series of essays on "Phantom Thread".)

There is a sublime tenderness about "Phantom Thread" that beats insistently.  No matter the terrain, the finely-textured grain of the 35mm print blown up to 70mm, you feel the love that pours out of Paul Thomas Anderson's new film.  In Jonny Greenwood's music score.  In the costumes.  In some of the characters.  In the stately elegance that adorns the film. 

"Phantom Thread" is about many things.  One of them: a man haunted by his mother's love.  The mother who haunts him.  A man's unsteady avoidance of falling completely in love with another woman for fear of somehow letting go of his love for his mother, who has passed away.  Freedom to be free(d) to pursue love unreservedly.

Reynolds (Daniel Day-Lewis) is, I think, searching for his mother and for that reason has been fearful of devoting himself completely to any woman he designs dresses for.  He has had relationships with these women but soon loses touch with his muses.   

Reynolds loses himself in his work and shuts down emotional attachment.  He lacks emotional maturity.  He's a big baby, as Alma (Vicky Krieps) says early on.  Alma, whom Mr. Anderson contours space for in the frame, yielding more and more of that frame to Alma as her presence and influence on Reynolds grows.

This framing and juxtaposition in it occurs almost immediately when Alma, who is waiting tables, approaches Reynolds at a diner inside the Victoria House in the English countryside. 

Vicky Krieps and Daniel Day-Lewis in Paul Thomas Anderson's drama "Phantom Thread".  Note the juxtaposition in the frame - standing versus sitting, suggesting power or control.  Leslie Sparham/Focus Features

What Alma does is access Reynolds and achieves a comfort zone within him that allows him to let his guard down and grow up emotionally.  Alma gets Reynolds to submit to her, to allow her to love him the way she wants to.  One could say that Alma is "mothering" Reynolds and any fears he has begin to melt away after she establishes control. 

It is said that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach.  The experience of being fed is an act of love.  Usually, though not always it is a mother who most often feeds her children.  In "Phantom Thread" Alma becomes the proverbial "mother" Reynolds feels comfortable and secure with.  In this initial meeting on a subsconcious level Reynolds already feels comfort with Alma.  He lovingly renders his meal request as if a delighted little boy.  A child.  Alma will nickname him "the hungry boy".

As "Phantom Thread" unwinds Mr. Anderson's framing of Alma becomes more prominent.  Her positioning as related to Reynolds is especially clear.  She takes the dominant juxtaposition, and this photo below is but one example.

Vicky Krieps and Daniel Day-Lewis in Paul Thomas Anderson's drama "Phantom Thread".  Note the positioning.  Leslie Sparham/Focus Features

What the director does with his framing of Alma is establish a cinematic pathway for Reynolds to walk on -- a journey of acceptance of Alma by Reynolds as his true and enduring love.  This process of accpetance looks and feels like a beckoning, a haunting -- one achieved not in malevolence but in adulation.  The haunting is being done by the mother of Reynolds.  It is as if Reynolds's mother is giving or signaling her blessing to Reynolds about Alma as the singular devoted love in his life. 

The best representation of this idea of "blessing" in "Phantom Thread" is when Reynolds, sick in bed for the first time, has a vision of his mother in his bedroom watching him in the distance.  She remains fixed in position as Alma comes in to the bedroom take care of him.  His mother has a serene look on her face.  Interestingly, her see-through white gown enhances her ghostlike presence and her small breasts can be seen discretely.  I mention her breasts and their size because in an early scene when Reynolds measures Alma for one of his dresses he notes rudely and incidentally, "you have no breasts."

Reynolds adds that Alma's lack of breasts is "good" but in a blithely arrogant, presumptuous and insulting way says, "It's my job to give you some."  He looks at Alma.  Then says: "If I want to."

Those last two quotes from Reynolds cut deep in Alma.  The scene where she is in her slip standing on a box is the one place (or one of two places) in "Phantom Thread" where Alma has no agency.  She is vulnerable, stripped down to the bone, almost literally, standing near-naked while Reynolds rebuilds his new muse.  It is a double undressing but may also be a turning point for Alma, as her stature will grow while Reynolds's own standing will shrink or at least be revealed.

What is interesting is that Alma resembles Reynolds's mother not just anatomically but in likeness.  She is of similar height and build.  I believe Reynolds has a fear of Alma reaching his very core of being and existence the way a boy may fear upsetting his mother or facing her after committing wrongdoing. 

Despite his abusive treatment of Alma and subsequently wealthy magnate Barbara Rose, Reynolds is a sensitive type looking for a sense of order and loyalty.  He distracts himself from the possibility of deep abiding love with Alma as he designs a wedding dress for the Princess of Belgium.  Alma senses the "threat" from the Princess as she enters the Woodcock house for her fitting and advises upon meeting her that "I live here."  It is a polite gauntlet laid down, from one woman to another.

"You can sew almost anything into the canvas of a coat," Reynolds fondly observes on a first date with Alma.  He confesses to having a lock of his mother's hair in his pocket breast and says he keeps his mother embedded in his heart.  The relationships Reynolds has with his departed mother is obviously and undoubtedly very strong. 

It is easy to forget that "Phantom Thread" is told from Alma's perspective and it is told directly to another character and not directly to the audience.  The film doubles as her odyssey to convince and be patient enough with Reynolds that he is loved. I think Reynolds believes the only person who ever really loved him was his mother.

Mr. Anderson pays homage to Alfred Hitchcock in "Phantom Thread" in several ways notably naming Alma (most likely) after Alma Reville, who called Mr. Hitchcock her husband.  There are shots and scenes in "Phantom Thread" that nod to "Psycho", "Rebecca" and "Vertigo", among others.

The haunting occuring throughout "Phantom Thread" and is evoked in the title is the suggestion of a third presence (not necessarily Cyril) but a third presence that often exists within the frame when Alma and Reynolds are in it.  Sometimes those presence are live.  Other times they are immobile.  Below are two examples of triangulation.  There is also almost always two women present in the frame whenever Reynolds is in it too.  The second photo below shows triangulation plus a "doubling" effect, suggesting a haunting -- a symbolic haunting -- is the inanimate object on the wall symbolically Reynolds's mother?  Note the doubling and the identical positioning.

Vicky Krieps and Daniel Day-Lewis in Paul Thomas Anderson's drama "Phantom Thread".  Note the triangulation with the second woman here.  Leslie Sparham/Focus Features

Vicky Krieps and Daniel Day-Lewis in Paul Thomas Anderson's drama "Phantom Thread".  Note the triangulation (purple outline) and the doubling (yellow circle).  Could the relief on the wall (circled) be a symbolic haunting by Reynolds' mother?  Leslie Sparham/Focus Features

Mirrors also serve as a function to showcases additional entities, persons or the suggestion of haunting.  "Phantom Thread" uses mirrors and windows effectively and there are scenes where their presence work so well.  Reflections add dimension, build atmosphere, mystery and suspense in a spatial way as well as any other manner.  Mr. Anderson does so here to good effect.  This photo at the top of this essay and the one immediately below exemplify the symbolism and effect.  On the big screen especially in 70mm the image below with the reflection in the mirror, is even more profound.

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

These elements of shadowing, doubling, reflections and make the evoution of the relationship between Alma and Reynolds rich, fascinating, mysterious and fulsome.  That Reynolds is surrounded by women, and surrounded and immersed in fabric, is a testament to the haunting power of love, loss, remembrance and commitment.  The dresses Reynolds designs are an extension of his mother, who left him an empire of love as much as an empire of a company named Woodcock.

Related: Previous essay - Fashion and Fascism in "Phantom Thread"

Related: "Phantom Thread" review

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