An appreciation(not a critique) of PT Anderson’s Phantom Thread, originally written on 6th Feb 2018.
Hello Hello! I went to see Phantom Thread tonight.
A little deliberation, a little fright;
a couple of flights,
I reached huffing puffing & hollowed.
But then the chorus started ; & Cassandra followed.
She sits there, a German face, in all her Englishness profound, on a burgundy armchair with mahogany walls in the background. Airy “yes”es & perfect teeth, almost no hand movement, convincingly devoid of exuberance, like an madman’s antique. Him; old, elegant, dressed in clothes too costly for my seven ancestors combined, unmistakably English, pronounced t’s in “often” and all; a man that comes with a mood.
Him; a fastidious elite London dressmaker with an adolescent’s appetite; her, a clumsy waitress with a good memory & an innocent smile, without any hideous undercurrents. They have a few words, rationed as they were by their reticence. During dinner we get a first glance of Freud: he shares a secret, playfully confessing his eccentricities. His mother is always close to him, he says. Everyone’s must always be, as if an irrefutable fact of nature.
They are a child’s words; “I don’t find that spooky at all”, “… and sausages”, one who has been without a mother for too long. The film swiftly goes past usual concerns of lesser dramas; her whereabouts aren’t mentioned, nor does their age difference bother anyone. His infidelities(?) are kept untold. Neither is her consent of particular concern before the little fling begins.
What kind of cinema is this? Drama, thriller, a period piece? What does it wish to unravel, or sew? What, precisely, is the subject of it’s curiosity? PTA’s past films have explored great American themes of milkshake drinking Capitalists, Post-war disillusionment of Scientologists, & the mighty porn industry’s existential crisis. So why switch to Britannia now? USA certainly didn’t run out of things to talk about. Why, then, the little hop across the pond?
Obsession, methinks; with obsession. Not towards any result, but for the method & it’s means. And where better than in this over-glorified national conglomerate so infatuated with past methods that to accept their fallibility would be to surrender it’s moral supremacy. We stand high, aloof from the rest. Hence our objects of obsession get a pedestal too.
Thus there this muse stands, on a dressing stool, naked but for a layer of undergarment, & the tall tailor from Fitzrovia kneels. A working class girl, standing in the upper attic of a posh country house, this world of straight lines & curated folds starts to make sense. This movie had always been bragging about how elegant it is, but this was it’s first set-piece, it’s first moment of fulfillment.
He fits her an old robe, marks some adjustments, then kneels to have a look. Awkward glances & red dresses were gone. Her, with neck longer than Qutub Minar & face the size of Taj Mahal dressed in pale white, releases a shy smile; him, with cuff-links done perfectly, a master craftsman, holding his eyeglasses in hand & a needle in those godforsaken lips, reciprocates. These glasses were something too. Not the cheap pink plastic ones that fold without due deference to their dignity; rather, ones which fold with an attitude, demand their place, respect; like an empire. It is getting all too had to handle.
There were never going to be elaborate kisses here(passions in this film aren’t subverted[that’d be too much Freud] but restricted), but the moment is shattered when his sister walks in, with the nose of a secret admirer, sniffing for a catalogue of faint flavours in her head.
From being a princess on a pedestal, she became a frog on an examination table, the coziness of the attic transforms into claustrophobia of this tiny island. Clasping a measuring tape in his measured hands, he starts to measure her up, naked again, while his sister writes her details on a page marked Alma, in pencil. Alma is never supposed to be more than a passing fancy; to entertain, to engage, & to be abandoned. “It’s my job to give you some, if I choose”, “You are making me very hungry”. She isn’t bothered, though. His tedious demands, his high-class playful snobbery, his hilarious high-regard for himself & his sanct breakfast schedule, are all digested with a practically infantile smirk. She feels proud of herself; she’s his lover, maid, model, henchwoman; she even turns nanny during his “episodes”. We get it; it’s not going to be an ordinary relationship.
Some humour begins to seep through during this montage, through insolences of cutlery, off-hand comments on breast-sizes & unthought childish angry mumbling that punctuate this elaborate affair. After a request for a private dinner goes down the drain by the deeds of the impetuous Big Fucking Child, her patience gives up. Her stiff upper lip gives way to vague mouthing to upper class hypocrisy. But what now? How long will this this little Margaret Thatcher endure this patriarchy? Or was she to accept her fate, sit around the house turning into a chubby tragedian. The intermission came just in time for all the questions to have been presented. But there didn’t seem any way to interpret this film. There are men(maybe women, too) who, after having succeeded in a profession, don’t take partners for the purpose of co-habitation, but rather as a project which might boost their creativity while the girl “righteously” labours on. I thought maybe this is the -highly-against-our-times-but-very-much-in-line-with-the-50s-message here. Though this would have been a downer to my aesthetic expectations, I couldn’t see any other ending, barring a guest appearance from Winston Churchill.
Throw away respect,
tradition, form & ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while.
The music of this film was not of the Mozart ilk, a high note hanging somewhere in the background, like a sign-post in the middle of a flooded river; but a subtler kind(I’m probably wrong here, but stay with me). A slow serenade of Schubert with shy notes, with as many layers as a wedding dress, just happy to be there, without stamping any authority till now; turned into a chorus, & Cassandra followed in it’s steps, in plain clothes; she’d shed his polished layers.
When Henry Fonda turned up with a beard for shooting “Once upon a time in the West” thinking he needed to look tough to play an assassin, he was ordered by Sergio Leone to immediately shave it off. The director wanted the audience to feel cheated when they saw a blue-eyed baby-faced rookie murder a child. I think PTA felt this too; to make us believe that this plump-faced mild-mannered woman, observant & tough though she may be, would never be capable of such malice, of the poisoned chalice kind. This cruel assumption on our part is the first phantom of this elaborate game. We kept having a staring contest with an apparition, only to be robbed of all other senses. Not that He knew anything of this scheme. Not even him, this Great designer of elaborate patterns & coloured complexities. He was turned into a spectator in his own life. Familiar old ghosts haunted him, gilled mushrooms churned him inside out, & spat out from within his deepest chasms an unraveled self. Not all at once though, slowly; remember, I told you it’s a slow film. Enjoy it.
And the whole while she kept watch, as promised. She made him better, this cursed kid, because she wished so. She made him mortal by saving him from death. He asks her to marry him in the aftermath of recovery; she waits, before answering “yes”; and wears a plain dress. No gowns were needed to highlight her majesty anymore. She had made this strange world her own.
When his short-lived gratitude finally wears, he finds himself swept by a current too strong even for his will, refuses to believe that he’s irretrievably lost control over his subject, that he was as helpless as a temple arch being engulfed by a giant tree’s majestic roots. But he created this world, it’s threads, bricks, illusions, certainties; him & his sister. How could he let an outsider reign over it. He wished for control, & for once, he grasps for it.
He goes to get his wife home from a New Year’s party. Spotting her from above in a swarm of drunk bachelors; this most fashionable bachelor in town winds down a twisted path through his temple, through this phantasmagoria of floating balloons & loud music to get to the corner of his goddess, the creator of conspiracies. In a whole film devoid of overt sexual tension, the epitome, the orgasmic moment, comes from a stand-off. He shrugs, flutters, then faces up to her. And she looks right through him. This was when it became a great movie, this cinematic experience of unbridled passion bursting through the screen. It’s why we keep going back, hoping to get a glance of greatness, on a canvass worthy of their stature. My god it was worthy. He wanted to bring order to this chaotic world, & she defiantly looked to confirm his conviction. It was as if they were the only two people in the world, hoping to resolve an age old conflict by just staring into each other, under the shadow of their sovereign noses. The quiet wooden attics and dull-white dresses seem like a thing of past eternities. A lesser writer might have slipped “ See you on the other side”; it was that kind of a moment. The fuck he didn’t like confrontations.
There lies an apparent resolution. He takes her home, by the arm; she lets him. But it brings no order to life. He still feels cursed, laments for an old time, a more innocuous past when he wasn’t powerless against some invisible tide. He was at the end-point of his unraveling, the man who wove delicate secrets into garments had lost all the threads holding himself together; he’d lost all but the spool. What follows is a panicked plea to his sister to get him out of this, and when she reveals that she isn’t bothered, he lets go off a cutest filthy little outburst. This was him, this little working class boy whose mother was his teacher, his sister his governess, his wife torturer, moaning about a world that doesn’t feel his need. The art-form’s greatest connoisseur had become outdated by words like “chic”.
There is a moment in some films when you realize it has surpassed the constraints of drama and ventured into the realms of fantasy. It happens in The Master when Amy Adam’s eyes turn colour, and in Magnolia with the frog rain, it happens in Neruda when his wife explains to the inspector that he was just a figment of the great poet’s imagination.
It happens here too, in the small country house’s kitchen. He sees her cooking those poisoned mushrooms again. He held a trident in his hand, but even that couldn’t undo the cursed omelette. He surrenders to it all. We think, “Is he really going to die?”. The kajal of her eyes slowly fades away, the first time arrogance appears below her eyefolds. She had bared it all. He was looking at his murderer. And then it happens, the moment of deliverance.
Goodness gracious me, what beautiful dialogue it was. He was going to be alright; she’d make him better. A moment so fantastic as if foretold by some scriptures. The promise was delivered, he was unmoved, and she was Venus, tonight. The drama, the anguish, the conflicts of all their past lives were settled in a instant of delirium, settled for the rest of eternity. “Kiss me my girl, before I get sick “. A sentence so honest it makes up for all the terrible romance-flicks made every year.
There were no pleasure rooms, no bull-whips(and for god’s sake no anal plugs), but this was that kind of love, with surrenders, tortures, pain, and a thousand other heartbreaks this mortal flesh yearns for. The moment of conclusion happens in a toilet(how English!) when they are truthfully convinced that theirs was the most beautiful love-story in the world, perhaps the only love-story in the world, or to take it a little step further; the only love story ever written.