Attention to detail. This quality defines a great garment, and is also a quality of diligent students of any craft.
Success in any vocation is likely due to dedication and discipline that trumps the extent an average person is willing to travel. Famous athletes, prolific writers, artists & world leaders all come to mind. Their drive and focus shape the routines and habits of their daily lives.
But what effect does this pursuit have on someone’s personal life? How do they connect with others? Such is the chief question posed by “Phantom Thread,” a new film from director Paul Thomas Anderson (“There Will Be Blood,” “Boogie Nights”). In his second collaboration with Anderson, actor Daniel Day-Lewis (“Lincoln,” “Gangs of New York”) plays renowned, fictional and London-based high fashion dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (a name Mr. Lewis came up with himself). His drive for excellent craftsmanship creates friction with his newfound partner, Alma (Vicky Krieps, “Pitter Patter Goes My Heart”).
While clearly talented, Woodcock’s success as a dressmaker seems owed in part to his ordered routines and unique personal world, tailored by his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville, “Maleficent”), whose terseness and clear-thinking counterweights his sometimes childish stubbornness. Dwelling in a fashion house — Woodcock’s house is not a home — is for dressmaking.
The film opens by showing the end of Woodcock’s previous relationship with an aging muse. The viewer’s sense is that these muses come and go, but the audience begins to feel that Alma, idiosyncratic in her own right, is a special match for Woodcock’s psyche. That match, however, comes with tension. The movie highlights growth in both their working and intimate relationships over an unspecified duration in the 1950s; and also shows particular ways in which they push each other’s patience.
“Phantom Thread” has a cohesive thesis that meditates on the interrelatedness of obsessive tendencies, success and love. What balance can one strike in order to both pursue a calling and find love? Are they mutually exclusive?
Anderson’s form is compact, focused and achieves the film’s desired aims of exploring these questions. With lush, but muted hues in tone with London’s overcast environment (in fact, Anderson used smoke effects to give even interior shots a certain grayness), the beauty in this film — from the sets, the costumes, and the shot compositions — blends harmoniously with the mood of the story. Like a perfectly tailored garment, the film’s visuals never draw attention to themselves. Shot on 35mm film and experimental in its use of exposures, the cinematography (there is no listed cinematographer on this film) is as fine-made as one of Woodcock’s dresses — and thus achieves the same understated elegance.
“Phantom Thread” is a precisely crafted film and its well-done moving parts — from technical to the acting — come together to rhythmically (perhaps frustratingly) explore the dynamics between two lovers, the walls between them and the motivations that drive them. This film fits particularly well in Anderson’s canon, adding onto his list of bold, sui generis character studies post “There Will Be Blood” (2007).
Likely warranting subsequent viewings in order to fully appreciate its richness, “Phantom Thread” is a layered and subtly daring piece of cinema that diligently examines the difficulty of loving, and of being loved.
History seems to move quietly in the background of Guillermo del Toro’s (“Pan’s Labyrinth”, “Pacific Rim”) “The Shape of Water,” a film that pays homage to a classic era where cinema was an escape from the struggles and stresses of reality.
The film centers around the love story between Elisa (Sally Hawkins, “Blue Jasmine”), a mute custodial staff member at a government research lab in 1960s Baltimore, and the Amphibian Man, who is housed in the facility. The man has been caught by a perplexingly odd and perverse Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, “Midnight Special”) in South America, and is now studied in an attempt to gain an edge on the Soviets. While historical context — consumerism, the Cold War, racial tensions — very much influences the storyline, “The Shape of Water” focuses on love between two unique characters.
Presented in a desaturated green and with fantastical production design, the film feels like it takes place in an enhanced reality similar to Del Toro’s previous films, such as “Hellboy.” Elisa works the night shift and has a routined life, and, given her muteness, has her daily life narrated by her two best friends: Zelda (Octavia Spencer, “Hidden Figures”), a colleague who talks to Elisa about the stresses of the job and her own absent-minded husband; and Giles (Richard Jenkins, “Step Brothers”), a neighbor struggling to keep work in print advertising, as he makes handmade ads in an increasingly photography-driven age.
Del Toro succeeds in crafting a strong film, with a tactful script, rich characters, beautiful sets and a tender love story. But where the film goes above and beyond is in subtle references to struggles of society and humankind — both past and present — through romance.
Throughout the film, Del Toro satires the era with self-help books and the “four out of every five successful men drive a Cadillac” type of suburban consumerism. But he also showcases more serious subjects in segregated countertops, espionage, and post World War II peacetime malaise.
These items in the film, at a first glance, can feel like an aside to the main plot. Love trumps all, right? The journey of a supernatural creature and a mute woman rise above all of these societal complexities. However this story, or any human story, is very much a product of underlying realities. The same human emotions, strengths and flaws that dictate history play out in small-scale connections and interactions among individuals.
There is a scene where Giles is watching a saddening news report on Civil Rights demonstrations, and, exclaiming that it is too upsetting, quickly switches the channel to one of his favorite classic films. He is using cinema as an escape. The viewer is performing the very samefunction, watching “The Shape of Water” (or any film), potentially, as an escape. It all feels very dreamlike: beautiful sets, classic music, supernatural creatures. But the animus that leads Michael Shannon’s character to fear, rather than admire the Amphibian Man is the same human flaw that plays out in society’s greater struggles to accept differences. Elisa’s character represents our better nature — good vs. evil in a classic sense.
We can never escape ourselves, but we can always be better. Del Toro’s subtle expression of this thesis makes “The Shape of Water” — already a fun, well-crafted and a moving love story — a societally introspective film.
The Shape of Water received seven Golden Globes nominations, including: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay and Best Original Score.