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Why praise for Phantom Thread does injustice to film as a form of art

This toxic Gothic tale of love and obsession could have been elevated to another level if Alma's guilt was well etched out.

 |  3-minute read |   14-02-2018
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Sometimes a great artiste can become self-indulgent and create something that may not be a great piece of art. It all depends on the times we live in.

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The great English painter John Constable had to be discovered by the French critics as England was going through the Industrial Revolution and art had taken a backseat in his times. Eugène Delacroix repainted the background of his 1824 Massacre de Scio after seeing the Constables' gold medal winner The Hay Wain at Arrowsmith Gallery, Paris, which he said had done him a great deal of good.

Alfred Hitchcock was considered a B-grade filmmaker in the US but was later hailed by Cahiers du Cinéma by then film critics, François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol. It's up to the critics and art connoisseurs to analyse the work and appreciate its worth. The recent practice of lauding of lesser art forms by the critics reflects that we live in decadence. Do you need an event like Iranian Revolution or collapse of the Soviet regime to create a period of renaissance and make beautiful films like Iran or ex-Russian states are making?

What baffles me is the praise a film like Phantom Thread, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is attracting. He is famous for his previous works, There Will Be Blood and The Master and is often compared with the British maestro Stanley Kubrick. This year, Phantom Thread is nominated for BAFTA, Golden Globes and Oscars in six categories, including the coveted Best Director and Best Picture awards.

This film is a sumptuously photographed; 35mm flick with beautiful music, though I wished for a bit less of the same in the beginning. It is about an important artist, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), and his muse Alma (Vicky Krieps) in the 1950s' England. Anderson recreates the 50s fashion trade with such precision that we almost feel the silk fabric spread over the table. Daniel Day-Lewis is brilliant as an obsessive designer who dumps his first muse without any remorse when he finds her irritating and also sweeps a young East European waitress, he meets for the first time, off her feet. Lesley Manville who stole the show in Mike Leigh's Another Year is aptly cast as Reynolds' sister Cyril. The biggest surprise is Vicky Kreips, who holds her own along with Day-Lewis and Manville.

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But what is disappointing is the script by Anderson and Day-Lewis. The film does not have dramatic plotting and heavily depends on the psychological profile of two major characters, Alma and Reynolds. Though Reynolds is well fleshed out, Alma is a shallow character. We know that she loves Reynolds because she vocalises it, and we can surmise her desire for his wealthy, luxurious lifestyle, where he dresses her in elegant designs and treats her at the finest restaurants. It's made clear that this is all very different from the small town inn in which she worked.

But the class difference is never articulated fully or taken beyond the initial scene showing Alma as a waitress. Her emotions revolve only around Reynolds. We witness his life, his creative pursuits, the power his dead mother has over him and his business partner and sister Cyril but Alma is only depicted in the terms of her relationship to him.

Alma does not have any guilt after giving the poisonous mushroom to Reynolds for the first time. And the second time, we watch the suspense when Reynolds chews the mushrooms for a much longer time than required.

This toxic Gothic tale of love and obsession could have been elevated to another level if Alma's guilt was well etched out. But when a highly acclaimed filmmaker like Anderson makes a mistake, people easily forgive him.

Are we slipping into a coma of aesthetics?

Also read: Why 'misguided' Kashmiri youth and 'misinformed' right-winger are made for each other

Writer

Bijaya Jena Bijaya Jena @jena_bijaya

National award-winning filmmaker, script writer and actor. Has been part of international film juries.

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