5 March 2018

Dressing the Part

My Mirror column:

Phantom Thread, nominated for six Academy Awards, is a disturbing portrait of the relationship between an acclaimed 1950s designer and his muse.

"Try these, they’re delicious,” says the good-looking young woman at the breakfast table, holding out a plate of Danish pastries and cinnamon rolls. The striking older man she is addressing barely looks up: “No more stodgy things. I told you.” “I didn’t know that,” the woman says, looking dismayed. And then, softly, defeatedly, “You may have told it to someone else.”

The young woman, Joanna, having made a last, desperate plea for attention, soon disappears from Phantom Thread, leaving us to our dismissive hero, Reynolds Jeremiah Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis in an unsettling performance that he has declared will be his last). But this early scene in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film (nominated for six Academy Awards this year) holds the key to much more than might at first appear.

In her few moments on screen, Joanna offers a distressing glimpse of what it’s like to be in a relationship with a man like Reynolds: fastidious to a fault, his perfectionism requiring everyone in his orbit to spin just so. To be his lover is really to be his willing student, thrilled to receive instructions – and to expect censure for failing to follow them. It is also to remain forever on tenterhooks, waiting for the moment when he will tire of her devotion. Because of course, devotion can get boring; casting someone in one’s own mould is only fun until the cast is complete.

So Joanna is packed off. Immediately after, as appears to be his wont, Reynolds meets and begins to court another young ingénue. Alma (Vicky Krieps) is a waitress at a small country hotel, and it seems of significance that their very first meeting involves her serving him.

Soon after she has been brought into the household, unsurprisingly flattered to be the muse of so great an artist, we get another scene at the breakfast table. Alma is merely buttering her toast and pouring her tea, but to Reynolds’ oversensitive ears, it is as if she had ridden a horse across the room. He goes off in a huff. Alma holds out briefly. Then Cyril –Reynolds’ sister, aide and housekeeper rolled into one – tells her that if breakfast goes badly, his day can get ruined.

“I didn’t know that,” says Alma finally, deflated. The words are the same as Joanna’s. It is as if knowing what Reynolds likes and dislikes is a secret, one that gives the women in his life the only power they have. He is a man, and even his most unreasonable demands need only be known in order to be fulfilled. Even attempts to pamper him can backfire without this ‘knowing’. So when Alma plans to cook a surprise dinner for Reynolds, saying she must get to know him in her own way, we know it isn’t going to go well.

We have had rather too much of this dynamic in heterosexual romance: the man fully-formed, someone whose peculiarities are a privilege to know, and the woman who is trying her hardest to get to know him, a formless creature, only too happy to assume the shape of his dreams.

This idea – of the man giving shape to the woman – assumes more than metaphorical weight in Phantom Thread, because Reynolds is a highly regarded fashion designer in 1950s London: his work is crafting women’s silhouettes. He is dressmaker to the very well-off – as long as they are very grateful. His creations are tailored to each woman who comes to him. And yet somehow it is he who retains power over those he chooses to dress. “You have no breasts,” he announces drily to Alma, as he takes her measurements the first evening he has taken her out. Her response, of course, is not offence but apology: “I know. I’m sorry.” Having extracted that expression of less-than-confidence, Reynolds changes tone: “No, no, you’re perfect,” he says. “My job to give you some. If I choose.”

One of Alma’s few statements about what she gets out of her relationship with Reynolds is about how the clothes he puts her in make her forget her youthful dissatisfaction with her body: “in his work, I become perfect.” His control – and her powerlessness – is total.

In this iteration of love, Alma can only be strong when Reynolds grows weak. His illness – mysteriously unexplained – is what changes his mind about marriage to Alma. And her fantasy of their romance is articulated precisely in terms of power: “I want you helpless, with only me to help you, and then I want you strong again.”

Phantom Thread is a painstakingly crafted film. Despite its deliberately excessive air of mystery, there is pleasure to be derived from its sensual attention to detail: the stunning confections of lace and silk and taffeta that are Reynolds’ world, and the mingling of egg and mushroom, the sizzle of butter that are Alma’s. The film gestures ever so slightly to Alma’s cooking as a form of private artistry, a reply of sorts to Reynolds’ féted, public one. And yet how can we see it as a reply, when he does not? When he barely condescends to consume the fruits of her labours?

This is a film that sets domesticity up against artistry, and believable as the final settlement between them is, one wishes for it no longer to be called love.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 4 Mar 2018.

No comments: