06/04/2018

Phantom Thread - The Man Of Muses

Thoughts On: Phantom Thread (2017)

A waitress is brought into the house of a renowned dress maker.


Phantom Thread is a fascinating film, one that seems to signal how indistinct Paul Thomas Anderson is as an 'auteur'. Though he produces, writes and directs each of his films, his voice falls into the backdrop of each and everyone one of his stories, allowing his actors/actresses to take the fore. Magnolia and Boogie Nights are then ensemble-piece movies, each boasting a large, strong cast, Punch-Drunk Love is a stand-out film for Adam Sandler and Inherent Vice and The Master are vehicles for Joaquin Phoenix and, the latter, Philip Seymour Hoffman also. Just like There Will Be Blood, Phantom Thread is Daniel Day-Lewis' film. Anderson is never present within beyond being a name and a seal of quality-assurance. This is not criticism - not at all. Instead, PTA seems to be the exception to the rule that a great director uses cinema as his own voice.

Moving away from digression, honed and deeply engaging, Phantom Thread doesn't provide a performance as explosive and gripping as There Will Be Blood does--which I think is PTA's and Day-Lewis' best film--and nor does it construct a narrative as powerful. But, despite the fact that Anderson doesn't project the directorial and literary prowess he does in most of his other films, his management of theme is on-point; and Lewis is as sharp as ever.

Very much so a character study of a man of muses, this appears to be a Oedipal tale. Insofar as this examines one man's anima--his conception of the ideal woman--Phantom Thread bears a question of what binds him to his female counterparts. And, indeed, this seems to be entirely confirmed by the title. What keeps our main characters - Reynolds Woodcock, impossibly particular and controlling - together? There seems to be three answers: his mother, his sister/manager and his muse-turned-wife. Each of these women play very distinct roles in his life, so distinct they come to be universal forces. His mother created him. His sister preserves him. His wife threatens to destroy him. Reynolds is all too aware of this, and in fact seems to be in search of these forces as a result of his complex--non-literal, abstract and ambiguous as it is.

Consumed entirely by his own idea of female beauty, Reynolds invites women into his life, into his world and domain of rules. It is the fact that he can do this that makes the archetype that forms the heart of his character - the man of muses - so fascinating. The man of muses is quite different from the male explorer or warrior. Both of these men are characterised as existing within the domain of the feminine - the explorer searches through nature and the warrior fights for/defends the motherland. The relationship here is predicated upon a balance of sacrifice; the female and male sacrificing themselves to one another. In such, the man ventures out into danger and the female rewards and preserves; the explorer finds hidden gems of nature, the warrior wins a princess. The female bears meaning, the man tries to come to terms with it. We see this play out in a vast number of stories involving heroes who fight and/or explore: Indiana Jones, Forrest Gump, The Matrix, Star Wars, The Lord Of The Rings, Braveheart, Die Hard, James Bond, etc.

The man of muses is a character, who, unlike the hero or adventurer, is the domain that the female enters. He usually appears in romances as the dark and mysterious quiet figure - think of 50 Shades Of Grey, Twilight, Beauty And The Beast, The Shape Of Water, Gone With The Wind, etc. What makes this character a man of muses is the fact that he invites or allows females in - and we so often follow them. This is the primary difference between the man of muses and the warrior or adventure as, after a female enters his domain, he so often allows her to extend out her own domain unless he be overwhelmed by it. As a result, though the woman goes into such relationships at a disadvantage, her aim is to so often change the man, to save him or to equal him. Beauty And The Beast the is most obvious and precisely fundamental example of such a tale, but films such as Gone With The Wind play more with the hubris of the female, which results in a different narrative arc.

The arc of males and females, however, seems to be quite consistent in these archetypal tales; the man tries to understand the female and the female tries to realise her domain. From this comes a harmony that resonates, abstractly and usually unconsciously, with our own lives. What you see in Phantom Thread is exactly this - the man tries to understand the female and the female tries to realise her domain - only, instead of the man trying to understand the woman from the off-set, she tries to understand him and, he, himself, too. However, embedded in the man is a yearning for a female quality that he doesn't quite understand. So, it is not necessarily himself that he wants to understand, but an absent female that must realise herself. This is why we see Reynolds slowly allow his muse to become his wife, to become death, more stern and more terrifying than he could ever be; she becomes his anti-mother.

There is a sense of perversion about this Oedipal tale, however, due to the fact that Reynolds is such an extreme man of muses; hyper-controlling and entirely unwilling to be changed unless laid flat by a very particular someone. The harmony that he is destined for is then equally perverse; the balance of female and male forces far too intense, his wife, not just by his side til death, but the bringer of it, his sister not just the preserver of life, but the literal manager, and his mother a goddess who birthed a god. It is fascinating, however, that, despite the perversion of the balance that is achieved, Phantom Thread nonetheless feels harmonious; everyone seems to deserve one another in some way. This justifies the extremity of character and drama, and ultimately makes for a fascinating play with an archetypal tale that owes its impact to the likes of Beauty And The Beast, but also finds a way to transcend such sources to a good degree.

So, with that said, I'll leave things with you. Have you seen Phantom Thread? What do you think of the movie?







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