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‘Phantom Thread’ film review: Stunning performances in a drama about love and other creases

Paul Thomas Anderson’s battle-of-the-sexes drama has Daniel Day Lewis, Vicky Krieps and Lesley Manville all in top form.

London, the 1950s. Renowned couturier Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis) has run out of patience with his latest muse. His sister and manager Cyril (Lesley Manville), calmly suggests that he move on. The siblings share an unspoken bond after the death of their mother, which has deeply affected Reynolds. When Reynolds brings home a waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps), and starts fitting her out in his creations, Cyril hunkers down for the inevitable triangle that will play out in the household.

Alma is the picture of inelegance when she first sees Reynolds in a restaurant, but the designer spots in her the perfect object of experimentation. He likes women with a small belly, Cyril tells Alma by way of explanation.

Reynolds seeks to cut Alma out of the same cloth as himself and his sister, but the sprightly Alma resists his attempts at control. She shatters the breakfast rule of complete silence by buttering her toast too vigorously, and chafes at being treated on the same level as Reynolds’s all-women crew. The micro-management that governs the lives of the siblings – the atelier cannot work any other way – influences Alma as well as causes her to break out in unanticipated directions.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s subtly crafted stunner is less a fashion movie than a study of power equations. Modern psychologists might characterise the relationship that develops between the older sophisticated man and the younger inexperienced woman as co-dependent. Sociologists will see the unmistakable first stirrings of a gender war in the untrained Alma’s attempts to pick up the tricks of her patron’s trade and be regarded as his equal rather than a submissive muse.

Fans of Anderson will see the resurfacing of familiar themes, including the pursuit of an ideal at the risk of alienating loved ones, the tensions between authority figures and followers, and the peculiar nature of obsession, which transforms as well as tarnishes.

The age-old bruising encounters between men and women, romance and expectations, play out in a world in which perfection and obsession are professional requirements. Despite its haute couture backdrop, Phantom Thread has a pared-down and rough-hewn quality. The clothes are elegant without calling attention to themselves, and function as an extension of the tightly held emotional landscape that Reynolds and Cyril have created for themselves, one that Alma permanently disturbs.

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Phantom Thread.

The American director, shooting for the first time in the United Kingdom, focuses on the detailing rather than the broad canvas. The drama is filled with numerous and luminous close-ups – the director has also shot the movie – and moments that reveal the care and attentiveness that drive fashion. Sequences fall perfectly from one to the next, accompanied by Jonny Greenwood’s classical background score. The movie reaches its peak with a bruising spat between mentor and muse, after which it elegantly moves towards a hurried and unconvincing denouement.

The delicate balance of performances never wavers even in the final headscratching moments. Daniel Day Lewis, in what he has said is his final role, is typically brilliant as the self-absorbed designer, but his efforts are matched by the two main female characters. Lesley Manville, the fabulous actress from Another Year (2010), is stupendous as the perfectly coiffed Cyril, especially in the scene in which she demolishes her obdurate brother by reminding him of her superior debating skills. Vicky Krieps is stunning as Alma, matching Day Lewis in her rigour and determination.

Although Anderson’s screenplay doesn’t allow Alma’s actions to be adequately explained and papers over the class differences between the lovers, Krieps makes every scene of hers sparkle with her watchful intelligence and instinct for self-preservation. When Reynolds watches Alma let her hair down at a New Year’s Eve party, it is as if he is seeing her for the first time.

There are shades of Roman Polanski’s twisted relationship dramas in Phantom Thread, but without the savage honesty. In this atelier of intense emotions, Anderson has crafted an old-fashioned romance about the very foundation of modern romance. The title hints at the invisible skeins that run through the fabric of love itself. This phantom thread lingers, like the recurring ghost of the designer’s dead mother, to remind him and Alma of the ruffles and creases that can never be smoothed out. Rather than a love story, the movie is about the state of being in love.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.