Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
THERE WILL BE BLOOD marked an obvious change in style for auteur Paul Thomas Anderson. Similar to his previous features, the film spotlit the best and worst of humanity in a kaleidoscopic prism. It was a turning point in how he wholly embraced his love of misanthropic protagonists – a necessary step in his maturation as a filmmaker. The side effect was that it led to divisive fictional portraits – like THE MASTER and INHERENT VICE. PHANTOM THREAD is the latest to cause a provocative stir. Assembled from a patchwork of thematic content and sundry sentiments from other stronger, artistically ballsy films from earlier this year, Anderson’s offering is a crushing bore. This altogether mediocre design turns this master tailor into the pariah of the fashion scene. It essentially goes out of style once it hits the runway.
Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis) is a brilliant fashion designer. He knows exactly how to make a woman feel beautiful through fashion, emphasizing what works and disguising what doesn’t. However, he’s a horrible boyfriend. He loses interest in his lovers long before they do, typically relying on his long-suffering, controlling sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) to do the dismissing. She’s almost as unforgiving as her brother – almost. Life changes drastically for the siblings after a chance encounter in a hotel restaurant with waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps). She brings warmth and tenderness into his life. She fuels his love to create, acting as his muse. Designing lavish haute couture and wistfully admiring her in his artistry becomes their very specific form of sex. She brings splendor into his salon – at least momentarily when, surprise, she too wears out her welcome with Mr. Woodcock. But unlike his previous girlfriends, she’s not about to leave quietly.
Manville is remarkable as Cyril. You understand her plight clearly courtesy of her nuanced performance, shooting icy daggers with her eyes here, lobbing a barbed passive aggressive comment there. Her ability to weaponize “shade” is raised to an art form. She’s probably the most dynamic female role, even as a supporting character. That said, Anderson doesn’t gift her with a complete arc, which is a letdown given how much effort Manville has put into the role. Mark Bridges’ costume design is absolutely exquisite and extraordinary. That would be an obvious statement, but we’ve seen other films revolving around fashion that haven’t been nearly as sparkling (cough, cough. READY-TO-WEAR). Anderson’s cinematography places the emphasis on natural light. It illuminates the fabrics, giving them a tactile feeling. Plus, he makes the (albeit brief) driving scenes pulsate with excitement.
It’s really the material that lets everyone down. While this would make a great double feature with writer-director Darren Aronfsky’s MOTHER!, audiences will find themselves responding more to Aronofsky’s feature than this. Both show what it’s like to love an artist, and all the insatiable, ego-driven neediness surrounding that kind of romantic entanglement. Nevertheless, Aronfsky’s feature goes into deeper meaning, whereas Anderson’s stays at surface level. Anderson plays the kink too safe. Alma and Woodcock’s attraction to cruelty is rarely felt by the audience. It’s lifeless, when it desperately needs a zing. Though there are humorous overtones to his cinematic avatar-of-sorts’ eccentricities, there’s also a snooty-attitude stitched into the film’s fabric. Late in the second act, the filmmaker fuses a feminist statement to the narrative. This doesn’t work either because we saw it done better in Sofia Coppola’s THE BEGUILED. He draws connections with the captor/ captive relationships in similar fashion – and also lifts an identifiable plot element too.
The biggest failing is that this couple you’re supposed to root for fails to generate any genuine heat. Woodcock never recovers from our chilly first impression of him. We believe him when he shows us he’s too narcissistic to truly give himself over to her. Alma gives so much, to the point of being a sadist, forcing this relationship to work. Oh honey. He’s never gonna fulfill your needs like you want.
As it stands, Anderson has constructed an ill-fitting garment.
PHANTOM THREAD opens in limited release on December 25.