We need to talk about art’s obsession with the tormented genius. When did we start accepting the idea that in order for one to be a great artist, they also have to mentally and physically suffer, all the while torturing the ones around them? The link between mental health and talent has been explored since the writings of Aristotle and gained steam in the 18th-century romanticism. It hasn’t been forgotten since then. Think about “The 27 Club”, whose brilliant members all died at an early age due to their alleged inability to deal with fame, themselves and their feelings. “But that was music”, you say.
Well, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film – and allegedly Daniel Day-Lewis’ last – is centered in the fashion world, and starts with the exact same premise: this man’s a genius. And well, something’s just not quite right with him. In order for his “brilliance” to exist, and to appear, he needs to contaminate and alienate absolutely everyone and everything around him. Until he meets his match. For some, it’s death, it’s the overdose. For others, it may simply be someone who says “enough, buster”.
In “Phantom Thread“, Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a renowned dressmaker living in glamorous, post-war 1950s London. His sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) acts as a right-hand in running a business that serves royalty members and film stars, socialites, and debutants, all proudly exhibiting a Woodcock creation as a symbol of wealth, elegance and status. Women in his life seem disposable: they provide him with inspiration and companionship until he seems to no longer be interested in them. At that point, it’s up to his sister to make them leave. His routine, habits, and space he deems needed to create remain unchanged until he meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), a quiet but strong-willed waitress.
The first glance already reveals we’re dealing with an elegantly built period piece. The set decoration by Véronique Melery, combined with the costume design by Mark Bridges easily convey an idea of perfection and gracefulness, one that heavily relies on routine and hard-built structures to sustain itself. But there are cracks underneath this beautifully erected structure, lots of cracks. Woodcock is a man of method, one that does not like having his routine disturbed, and who is unable to start his day with confrontation, or disagreements. In reality, he simply cannot have any of his whims and wishes challenged. Toxic masculinity at its worst.
As controlling sociopaths often are, there’s no denying Woodcock’s charm. Day-Lewis plays the man with such precision and perfection – well, when has he done anything less than perfect, anyway? – that his mannerisms, posture and facial expression tell us almost everything we need to know about him. The rest, worry not, he will reveal in conversations – or rather monologues – that expose his unresolved Oedipal complexes and Judeo-Christian God complexes. Woodcock is the perfect representation of what Aronofsky hoped to create with Javier Bardem’s character in “Mother!” and failed.
The charm and humor that conquers Alma, the talent and confidence he displays, quickly transforms into control and oppression. While he is glad to use her as his muse, as a platonic inspiration for his work as well as a romantic partner for when he feels appropriate, soon comes the moment when her mere existence seems to annoy him. The way she butters her toast, how she insists on discussing something he’d rather not talk about, how she pours her tea or cooks the asparagus, everything seems to bother him. He bites back with dialogue lines that range between the absurdly comical, the screwball and the right out maniacal. Will this woman just quietly take it all?
That’s precisely when Anderson’s story shines and dares to go higher, going against what one could possibly expect as a resolution. Even when we put two plus two together and believe we have figured out this equation, he pulls the rug from right below our feet and, with a gasp, we realize it’s well, not quite what we thought, but more shocking, more twisted and, why not, much more fitting. Krieps, stripped away from makeup, looking both young and tired, carries Alma with the demure of one who knows precisely when to act and what to do. She’s the sort of person who’s seen her fair share in life – we’re only hinted at her past, but I suspect something involving escaping the Nazis during WWII. Here’s one character I wish we knew more about.
Their relationship may as well be love, I wouldn’t dare question, and frankly, that seems to be beyond the point Anderson hopes to make with his story. Rather, this is a tale about negotiating and finding balance, control and, why not, kindness – at whatever cost it may come. Coming at a time where we continue to question male entitlement and behavior – in all areas, but especially in the entertainment business – its timing feels incredibly appropriate, as it shows how pervasive and destructive this way of looking at oneself and their art as the center of the universe may be. Is a cataclysmic rebuttal the proper way to deal with a cataclysmic attack? I wouldn’t know. But here, it works beautifully.