Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Paul Thomas Anderson is back. And it’s business as usual as he scratches another little odd corner of the twentieth century to see what kind of story he can unravel.
Daniel Day-Lewis is back on the roster as well, more than a decade on from There Will Be Blood. This is apparently his swansong. He’s Reynolds Woodcock, a society dressmaker in ’50s London (see? A little odd corner of the twentieth century) and a strange fish indeed. He’d probably be said to be on the autistic spectrum today. Fussy and petulant, he treats his models and clients (the rich and the royal) like mannequins – his detachment from them, his inability to relate to them, is probably the thing that allows him to craft them and sculpt them like works of art. His ladies, in turn, love him. Love the attention he gives them, objectifying and humiliating it may be. He’s handsome and charming, but quite sexless. He’s also obsessed with his dead mother and dominated by his sister (Lesley Manville – a fantastically fuming hard stare of a performance).
But this isn’t a film about Woodcock alone. The focus is his relationship with Alma, a young waitress played by Vicky Krieps. She’s magnificent in this, the absolute star of the film. Reminiscent of Rooney Mara in Carol, she’s a shy, thoughtful presence, but her metamorphosis is incredible to watch (90% through body language alone) as she rises in status and confidence. When they first meet, Woodcock reprimands her for not standing up straight – by the end of the film she’s an ice queen.
She has a steely, conniving nature hidden within her that gradually reveals itself. And the story pans out as a curious meditation on quite the most dysfunctional relationship I’ve seen on screen for a while.
Alma rightly wonders aloud how Woodcock can ever love one woman, when he spends his life fussing over and finding the beauty in an endless queue of rich admirers. His answer to her is blunt: he can’t. He says it would him ‘deceitful’ and he doesn’t want that. Alma, however, quietly takes on the challenge.
I won’t ruin what happens, but its creepy and sadistic rather than flashy and event-filled. You have to wonder at PTA’s sanity in having the imagination to come up with this stuff. I certainly wouldn’t want to be married to him. It’s not so much a weird tale about weird people – you get the feeling that he’s uncovering a twisted streak that runs through everyone in the world if you just look for it.
Aesthetically, It has PTA’s usual attention to detail. The dressmaking scenes are fascinating, and Woodcock’s gargantuan breakfasts are a mighty thing to witness.
Jonny Greenwood’s score is perhaps a bit syrupy, a bit Mantovani, but then that’s maybe a deliberate choice.
Is it an enjoyable film? Frankly, no. It’s puzzling, slow and obscure (relatively speaking – it’s probably PTA’s most linear narrative since Punch Drunk Love).
But it’s also unsettling and beautiful in a unique way. It will get under your skin if you let it.
Might appeal to people who enjoyed:
Obviously, PTA fans have got to see this. To place it among his works, it’s like a cross between Punch Drunk Love (a love build on weirdness) and The Master (the cult leader as a spoiled child).