I love fashion, romance, drama and Daniel Day-Lewis...so why didn't I love Phantom Thread? (No spoilers)
If you've stepped into the theaters to watch a dramatic or Oscar buzzworthy film in the last four months, you've probably seen trailers for Phantom Thread, Daniel Day-Lewis' alleged last film ever...we'll see about that.
Day-Lewis plays the eccentric and famed fictional dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (not to act like a 12 year old boy, but I totally turned to Steven in the theater when his name was first mentioned and said "That is the name of our main character?") who lives a comfortable life maintaining full control over his studio, home, schedule, staff and sister/assistant Cyril played by Lesley Manville. His neurotic behavior and preferences are one day tested when he falls for a young waitress named Alma played by Vicki Krieps, who unapologetically has a mind of her own.
As of now, the film is rated 8.6/10 on IMDB, is certified fresh by critics at a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes (although the audience seems to disagree a bit, scoring the movie at a 75%,) has a score of 90 on Metacritic and is praised by the people at RogerEbert.com who are typically not afraid to say if they think something is less than amazing. And I'll admit that when I first saw the trailers, I loved the aesthetic and was excited to see a movie with a focus on fashion and romance, with a cast of serious actors. So why was I so disappointed?
THERE ARE NO SPOILERS AHEAD
This movie was fashionable, but not memorably so
There are so many films where a dress or outfit create a filmgoing experience you'll never forget. And I typically love those movies. From Gone with the Wind to Breakfast at Tiffany's to The Seven Year Itch, I love to look at clothing in movies. But there was something about this film that took away from the beauty of the clothing. And I think it was how much stress was put onto the audience focusing on the making of the garment.
After all, the dresses in this film aren't just being worn, they're being designed and made. But while the film does a lot of panning up and down the bodies of the models, with stress on Mr. Woodcock measuring their features, I felt like I saw a total of two minutes of dressmaking action. From the trailers, I expected fantastic imagery of fabric soaring into the air as someone lays it out on a table, the satisfying long snip of scissors as a professional cuts a perfect line into fabric for the thousandth time, and the sound of needles permeating cloth at a swift pace while two panels of fabric become one. But instead I got a ton of measuring moments that lasted too long, slow tedious sewing scenes and panning over fabric.
And funny enough, even though we spend a ton of time watching the garments be made, we spend very little time looking at the actual garment on a model. For me, there wasn't enough time to savor each outfit. There were two gowns I adored: One of them was worn by someone who was twirling around too much for me to be able to focus on the details of the gown, and we only saw the other one on a dress stand - and not on a real person - for a total of a minute. And as a result, while the models looked wonderful in stunningly classic gowns, it didn't make the impression I thought it would, to add to my mental vault of fashionable films.
This movie had drama, but it wasn't organic
There was something to the drama of this film that felt artificial to me, like it was trying to remind us of one trait of each character the whole time, while also throwing random obstacles and character traits in randomly at other points to forceably steer the story into strange directions. I felt like someone was hitting me over the head with the film's manuscript screaming "So-and-so is particular!" "So-and-so likes to throw shade while sipping tea!" "So-and-so likes to take their sweet sweet time while answering questions! Let me prove it all to you a seventh time!" And yet while they kept reminding me of the same character traits over and over and over again (Sometimes they'd do the same exact bits 2 or 3 and not even montage-style!) they'd all of a sudden show the character abandon that trait at a random point with no explanation, and without moving them anywhere as a character.
A good example of a movie reminding you of how a character is throughout the film and then showing you a different side of them in an effective way would be The Devil Wears Prada. Miranda Priestly is the dragon lady Editor-in-Chief of Runway Magazine who is shown throughout the film belittling people, holding extremely ridiculous expectations of others and frankly not caring about anything or anyone unless it will move her career and the company further. Then one day, we see her without her makeup and disheveled looking, with an out of character indifferent attitude to her. She's having issues in her personal life...the first thing we've seen her care about that didn't have to do with work. And it humanizes the character, as well as shows her weaknesses and imperfections in managing other aspects of her life.
Phantom Thread made me feel like I was watching The Devil Wears Prada, but this time they spent five different scenes showing Miranda getting angry that her coffee wasn't hot enough and then one day not caring when she receives lukewarm coffee, with no explanation to follow.
This movie had romance, but it wasn't romantic
The problems that made this movie's drama artificial also made it unromantic. The main interactions are those between Woodcock and Alma. Yet the whole time, instead of giving complexity to the characters, those interactions show them making the exact same mistakes with each other over and over again, then somehow changing their dynamic and ways whenever the script felt like doing so. Their fights, their drama, their lovey-dovey scenes don't feel organic or like there's any point to them...unlike the fighting and drama and love we know in real life, which do stem from real problems, which don't come out of nowhere, and which do make or break our relationships.
Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicki Krieps do a wonderful job of playing their characters in each individual scene, as intended by the writers. When the script calls for them to act like strangers, they seem like they haven't met before. When the script calls for them to be angry at each other, they feel very heated. When the script says they're happy and in love, they look sweetly at each other. It's not as though we're dealing with inexperienced actors. However, the writing of their relationship is done in a way that's so inconsistent and yet somehow repetitive, that I'll admit I started to lose interest in them as a couple as the movie went on. It didn't remind me of my current or past relationships, nor did it remind me of the relationships of anyone else in my life. It reminded me that I was watching a movie about a fictional one.
Daniel Day-Lewis was great, but this role wasn't
Before you DD-L fans grab at my throat, please realize that I did see the dedication and acting quality in this performance. I just think that with all his talent and range, that this wasn't a role that was complex enough to showcase his abilities. As Niles from The Nanny has said, using a fine burgundy to make sangria is like asking Pavarotti to sing "Muskrat Love." And I feel the same about them casting Daniel Day-Lewis as a one-note persnickety, curmudgeonly old man.
He was convincing. He was passionate. He was all in with his facial expressions, body language, delivery of his lines...it was just a boring character for him to play. I thought to myself several times in the theater what it would be like if Phillip Seymour Hoffman were still alive to play this role. How perverted he would have made the character when he's faced with his kinks and his need for a certain relationship dynamic. How insane he would have made the character in times of anger. And how dark the role would have ended up being. I thought, is it possible there would have been someone just that much more correct for this role than the Daniel Day-Lewis?
Then I realized that yes perhaps Hoffman would have done what he so often did with a role: He always seemed to take tedious, uncomfortable or slow films and added a fire to it that was half over the top stage acting and half true-to-life reaction that made him refreshing in every film he was in. He became the shining light in the strangest and most difficult to comprehend films. But that's his thing. And not Daniel Day-Lewis' thing.
Daniel Day-Lewis is best utilized in films that are already written well, easy to comprehend, and cinematically advanced. And he adds his professionalism, passion, and beloved overacting to enhance the movie-going experience. But he is not necessarily going to fix an odd or boring film. Which is why this movie won't go down as one of his greatest performances even though you can tell he cared about the role. And I do hope that this isn't his last role and that there are many more to come. Because that would mean that there would be many more great epics, period-pieces and biopics for the world to enjoy with his skills well-utilized in them. And that is something I would greatly look forward to.
Plus, do we really want his career to finish off on a movie where someone asks him "Why are you not married?" and he responds with "I...sew...DRESSES!"? I don't think so...
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