Be My Wicked Valentine: PHANTOM THREAD

My mind has been like one of those old school oscillating fans, that constantly over works itself on a sweltering summer day. All the levers and gears in my mind all in synchronized motion as I find myself thinking about Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent film, PHANTOM THREAD. When I initially viewed it, I didn’t know what to make of it. I’ve seen THERE WILL BE BLOOD, THE MASTER, PUNCH DRUNK LOVE, and MAGNOLIA, yet this one feels different. So what better way to sort out my feelings on the matter, as my modus of operandi always lands in writing it out in words.

PHANTOM THREAD is a 50’s period piece set in London, where Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis) is a notorious, fashionable dress designer, one who obsessively eats, and breathes what he does. Nothing else comes close to his work until, he takes a quick trip to the country side to recharge his batteries. He meets Alma (Vicky Criceps), a waitress who takes his very lengthy breakfast order and from that point forward, becomes his muse, his wife, his life partner who understands him better than he does himself.

And there’s one scene in particular, that highlights a peculiar quality in Alma, where they’re walking along the beach holding hands and she says to Woodchock, “Whatever you do, do it carefully.” Honestly, for a split second, I thought of the famous line from BREAKING BAD, where Heisenberg says, “Tread lightly.” It totally sounds like she softly threatening him, in her own bizarre way. Alma is the buffer between Woodcock and his work, like those annoying traffic cones that caution you about slowing down when construction is being done. I’m deeply intrigued this characteristic because there’s nothing wrong with slowing down, what’s disturbing is the method she uses to enforce that trait.

On another note, my reaction to PHANTOM THREAD was very similar to my reaction of watching Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS for the very first time; stoic expression, minor headache, and a lengthy walk to contemplate what the hell just happened. At first I resisted falling for it’s cinematic splendor, and yet somehow subtle moments slithered into my psyche like faint whispers of an unknown ghost. And, well four days later the a-ha moment hits me while cooking up some pasta on a Tuesday night. Go figure. And for those of you who haven’t seen it yet, RUN. (joking, WATCH both SOLARIS and PHANTOM THREAD back to back, it’ll be good for you.)

On a serious note, for those of you who have seen PHANTOM THREAD, isn’t it interesting how the importance of food shapes the story? My mind keeps reeling back to that final sequence, which is the most potent of all, where Alma is cooking Reynolds’ dinner, and the subtlety of each movement is brilliantly blocked by these two wicked lovers. It’s like a telepathic dance and the power rides heavily on body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. Because what happens to the delicate veneer of this film takes a massive subversive dark turn, in the most seamless way, and if you’re not paying close attention, in the blink of an eye you miss it. And Woodcock’s reaction is the most horrifying part. Cue in jaw drop. This film swept me off my feet and it took me days to realize this!?

Here’s how it happened. Hang with me on how I use an analogy to explain my weird thinking. For instance, a chef gathering ingredients for a recipe is what one needs to cultivate a distinguished, delicious, meal where all the flavors compliment each other. One wrong ingredient or mixture and you fuck up the entire entrée. This applies to varying arts; photography, painting, filmmaking, orchestrating a symphony for the Queen, sculpting, synchronized swimming, I mean the list goes on and on. Perfection is everything to most successful masters of the arts, and for Woodcock, every seam and thread must be sewn to perfection. His idiosyncrasies for a structured routine especially presented in the mornings, where having a quiet breakfast is essentially mandatory while he sketches and anything that unpins him from that, destroys his day.And Alma, goes to an unconventional extreme level, to love Woodcock in her own way, and anyone who tells her otherwise does not stop her at all. Bold, triumphant, move! A woman who believes in herself and her way of love conquers all. Whoops did I spoil it? She outsmarts him, and probably even the audience, I mean I was dumbfounded.

And, I suspect some if not most progressive feminists, detested Alma’s character for spending her life catering to one man’s needs. Pathetic, right? Or is it? What’s so incredibly ironic about that is she’s gone 30 steps further to knock this guy down a few pegs. She’s putting his ego in check and he falls in love with her for it. I won’t give away how she does it, but it definitely borders along the lines of attempted murder. It’s psychotically genius and the most subversive romance film that’s sprinkled it’s twisty, dark, phantom vibes, making me tingle all over. Part of me sees the horror in Alma’s actions, she deems as love all suspended by a zealous soundtrack that has an obeisance to the classic melodrama of the old Hollywood era. Swoony, poignant, and very effectively layered with the oh’s and ah’s of London back in the 1950s, where you had luxurious cars, gorgeous fashion, decadent food, and high society life. Not much has changed with the exception of things looking differently these days. Subjectively, perception might be a bit skewered, but STILL.

Alas, the story of love thrives in its own idiosyncratic way such as Anderson’s PUNCH DRUNK LOVE, however, this one has an intricate, attentive suspense to it, where tension overrides rationality. It’s like the heart hijacking the brain, and all the endorphins come out to play, uniting Woodcock and Reynolds, contrary to their somewhat deadly love play. There are times, various scenes feel like you’re watching a staged play, especially when Alma gets Woodcock’s asparagus all wrong, knowingly he likes it a specific way. Tempers flare but it was phenomenal.

PHANTOM THREAD is a prime example of taking a conventional romance story into a very mind bending, unconventional direction and I applaud Paul Thomas Anderson for that endeavor. It’s unique, bold, troubling, yet very elegant to watch how it unfolds, layer by layer. There’s something about it that certainly stigmatizes the mind, embroidering the various patterns, choices, sacrifices, and directions we make in life to obtain love.

The Shape of Love is THE SHAPE OF WATER

After about a week of mulling over THE SHAPE OF WATER, directed by the notorious monster-loving Guillermo del Toro, I’ve come to the conclusion that I really enjoyed this film. And after reading numerous mixed reviews and I really wasn’t sure where I was going to land on this. You see there’s a tiny inkling of horror, mixed in with some violence, a dash of eroticism, a villain, a monster, a quiet protagonist, and of course the pathos all riding on the emotional depth of how humanity perceives the “other”. All of these great ingredients combined and you have yourself a Del Toro film. What does this mean? The man knows, what kind of filmmaker he is and has accumulated a style that pays homage to a little bit of everything whether it’s contemporary or classic cinema, it all leads to how the past shapes the future in its own ambiguous way.

For those of you who don’t know the gist of the story, it’s about Elisa, a mute cleaning lady, who works in a laboratory operated by the government somewhere in Baltimore. Her two friends, Giles, an aging artist trying to get back in the advertising game, and Zelda, a hard working woman and coworker who also acts as Elisa’s interpreter all have identifiable differences in society’s eyes, demographic, ethnic, and sex wise. Yes, I’m beating around the bush and you can decide for yourself what that means. And of course an amphibian humanoid creature (who I wanted to be named Phil) shows up to the lab as a hostage by a dude named Strickland, who takes sick pleasure in torturing the vulnerable fishman. Elisa is intrigued by the fishman, and is sympathetic to him being quarantined. She falls in love with him, which drives her to get him the hell away from his fish tank, so he can return to the wild. Oh! and he has healing powers! It’s a simple premise and visually stands like a work of art and I think this is why I enjoyed the film very much because every scene is like an elaborate painting very much how I visually enjoyed PAN’S LABYRINTH. The beauty and themes are always presented in the details.

For instance, THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE, takes place in Spain of 1939, post civil war, or PAN’S LABYRINTH, taking place also in Spain in 1944 under fascist rule and now you have THE SHAPE OF WATER, taking place in 1962 post Cold War, all ride on a shaky, disturbing time period, henceforth shapes the behaviors of the characters living through it. Who are they and why are they the way they are? Some semblance of the past always seems to bleed in the veins of the characters Del Toro creates masking a bigger question to a bigger story. He uses historical context as a backdrop essentially revisiting how and why the past tends to repeat itself. Another observation: I feel like, and I might be taking a leap here, but Del Toro’s protagonists’ all have a flair of being the outsider which makes me correlate it to Del Torro, himself, who doesn’t seem to fit into the realm of Hollywood, blockbuster mega-box office smash hits where most achieve fame, success, and wealth. He’s his own kind of weird, and I mean that in a flattering way. He’s a rebel with a weird cause. Too cheezy? Deal with it. Yet his stories all have that twisty-fantasy, adult-like fairy tale that most audiences fall in love with, and it’s surprisingly uplifting not like those cerebral-mind bender movies that keep me up at night. Thanks David Lynch! (insert winky face)

Embedded within, Del Toro’s film, there is a thin somewhat complex layer, illustrated in his use of themes, colors, music, a certain homage to classic cinema and specific objects such as a ticking clock which I’ll get to in a bit.

Take the promotional poster for example, what inspired that? From what I’ve read, a notable work of art titled, “Der Kuss” (The Kiss,1908) a painting by Austrian Gustav Kilmt, which depicts a couple embracing, their bodies entwined signifying a yin and yang but together are one. Personally, I saw a bit of a Zdzislaw Beksinski painting in that poster, to which also showcases two skeleton’s embracing each other, probably a hair to deathly demented but STILL, the embrace remains the same.

All of the minute details, specifically with the color green and symbolism behind numerous objects; for instance, Strickland is always eating green candy, Giles always orders key lime pie, Strickland also drives a teal-colored Cadillac, the amphibian man is an aquamarine color, all of these details shape importance to the characters and the story. Green is the future which is contrary to where they were in the past (post Cold War).

I’ve also noticed the concept of time as a heavy theme. We’re constantly being made aware of it’s presence especially in the opening sequence, where Elisa has a routine, always on schedule, yet always late for work, as enforced by Zelda, who always holds her place in line at the time clock. Or if you got a super, close look at this, the man at the bus stop with a birthday cake sitting next Elisa. This caught immediately caught my eye, because it feels odd and out of the ordinary to see someone holding a whole birthday cake with a slice missing. Del Toro’s cluing us in on something here. Why do we place importance in the passage of time? I’d have to watch this film a few more times, to count how many clocks are actually shown.

I also love the healing element to this movie. Humans get banged up, and carry a crap ton of baggage with them over time, and despite all of that, are resilient once they decide to face fear head on. Fear is always a key component when it comes to facing new challenges or understanding the unknown and your reaction reveals what your character is made out of. For instance, Strickland, appears to be the successful, macho, authority, American made man, but beneath that facade is fear. The fear of failing. The fear of a strange Amazonian creature having any power over him, especially since he was considered a “God” all pins a sadistic conflict between the two. Alas, Strickland, is just another asshole causing trouble.

And given the calamity of today’s socio-political climate, of course there’s deep relevance to THE SHAPE OF WATER. Pick any one of those characters, who are all faced with an expected kind of role in society, and look where we are today, it’s interesting to compare and contrast that. Again, the passage of time is like it’s own weird kind of ghost, all thinly embracing the milieu of this story. We may not be blatantly aware, but certainly feel it’s presence hindering our ability to change, telling ourselves, there’s always tomorrow. Perhaps there is and perhaps there isn’t always tomorrow. What was that saying? Oh, right carpe diem!

(Slight spoiler ahead)

Ultimately, the ending leaves its imprint on an impressive yet slightly ambiguous stain in my mind. (I thoroughly enjoy ambiguous endings.) But this one again, image wise reminded me of the ending to Jane Campion’s THE PIANO, 1993. And anyone who’s seen THE PIANO as much as I have might agree, especially since the Ada (Holly Hunter) is a mute and takes a dive into the water, maybe not as beautifully captured as Del Toro’s but the sentiment is similar. There’s a catharsis there, a sense of peace, and essentially a calming with the reality one bestows upon themselves, a moment of clarity, where the character can decide to move forward or be drawn backwards to the constructs of time, the past, and or just death. Elisa like Ada chooses her will to live or her fish gills provide her that opportunity.

THE SHAPE OF WATER is a visually driven fairy tale, woven with a weirdness all forming the shape of love, and not a conventional kind of love, it’s one that defies normalcy by all means, one to which a world fears to comprehend why the fragments of who we are, are deemed abnormal. Elisa is one piece, Amphibian man is another piece, and together they create a whole, being each other’s equal, and that’s all that matters. Aww isn’t that romantic? And I’m going to just throw this out there, but deep down I feel like Elisa may have been an Amphibian woman herself, she just needed him to bring the pieces together? (Now, cue in ambiguous music.) Finally, it’s an adorable monster-love story, the kind we need more of. It’s strange to many because metaphorically speaking, its one that doesn’t color inside the lines, but challenges your imagination. Think outside the box. Remember Frankenstein and Wolf Man? Those guys needed love too, and look what happened to them. Just saying.

So let's talk about RAW

When I read about French, filmmaker Julia Ducournau’s RAW last year, I intrinsically knew it be something I’d find fascinating to study. Mind you, I’m still studying it. It’s disgusting, grotesque, where all the horror lies within the flesh, blood, hair, flakey skin, eyeballs, basically your whole anatomy making it narrowly bearable. Its controversy is just as stigmatizing as any Catherine Breillat film and some might even be up there with gnarly Cronenberg film. Whatever happened to that guy?

I constantly read articles on how audiences reacted and this may have attributed to some of it’s success. Personally, I feel like it was all an overhyped marketing strategy. If there’s anything I’ve learned in school, it’s how do we find effective strategies to get eyeballs to content. And sometimes you find a film, that just stands on it’s own two feet, where its content is so freakishly satisfying enough to create intrigue. Marketing is its own weird contrived kind of science. When audience members are passing out, vomiting, and are handed barf bags in some theaters, that opens the floodgates to success. Of course this is nothing new and has occurred in the past. Remember THE EXORCIST back in 1973? People ran out of the theater screaming or perhaps most notably Lars Von Trier’s ANTICHRIST which several critics lashed out as “an abomination”. Agghh! I’m still suffering the trauma of that one. Alas, every once in a while you get that special gem of a film that achieves critical acclaim and grosses people out. It’s its own kind of special, right?

RAW gives us a bite of forbidden delicacies that pivots our curiosities in some uncomfortable terrain and Julia Ducournau gives us that in a simple coming of age story. And everybody knows there’s a population of women who love horror films. Bela Lugosi said it best, “It is women who love horror. Gloat over it. Feed on it. Are nourished by it. Shudder and cling and cry out and come back for more.” So why is it any surprise female directors nourish the horror genre? Did everyone forget who Mary Shelley was? Women have been making horror films from the get go and are just now barely being recognized for it. And, I think part of the problem with that is we keep genderising films. Julia Ducournau defiantly states this in an interview:

“I do believe that my movies talk to anyone. I don’t want to genderise my audience or my movie; this is just another way of putting people in boxes. I’m a woman, yes, I’m a strong woman, and my movie is feminist, but I’m sure that everyone can get it. Why does no one say that Scorsese with Leonardo DiCaprio make movies for men by men? No! Of course women are going to see it! Why would it be different the other way? Why? It’s the same way that they do female razors that are pink! This is a fucking razor! Everyone uses it! There are not 300 ways to use a razor. Why would it be pink and cost one Euro more?”

You have to hand it to her for being fiery defensive and she makes a strong point on why so many are missing the premise of her film. Yes, there’s heavy sexualized- cannibalism going on, but it’s also about the human body, desire, lust, hunger, and finding a way to survive all this craziness while not necessarily make sense of it but accepting it. To many, the human body is gross in all it’s depiction or are we meant to see beyond the scope of that? I believe that’s a crucial part to this film. Okay and there’s a shit ton of blood but that’s beside the point. And so many Hollywood films do the opposite, triggering our subconscious to see the clean, thin, beauty of it all, which makes me roll my eyes every single time because it lacks authenticity for something unattainable as the idea of perfection.

Julia Ducournau’s RAW is an entrée of great magnitude, riding heavily on the taboo subject of cannibalism. She has mentioned in interviews that “cannibalism is part of humanity.” The story focuses on Justine, a 16-year old girl entering Veterinarian school for the very first time, and she comes from a family of successful veterinarians. So she has a reputation to uphold, which is interesting because it makes me question the legacy of her parents’ and how their story unfolded. Justine’s sister, Alexia is already a year ahead of her and becomes more or less a tour guide of what’s in store for her baby sister. And, since Justine is a vegetarian, the moment she’s forced to eat rabbit kidney as a hazing ritual that first week of school, things turn in a very wayward direction. It’s the equivalent of awaking a sleeping beast that’s been laying dormant for sometime and the antidote to tame it is unattainable. The beast has awoken and it will not be repressed. Oh hell.

She eats flesh and can’t contain her hunger for more. But, aside from cannibalism, the focal point is also Justine’s body. Throughout the narrative, her body is enduring the shock to eating flesh, leaving her with an aggressive, disturbing rash that evolves right after her first taste of meat. And Ducournau’s close ups are unforgiving. The camera’s eye makes you feel that body of horror but in contrast to that, it’s beautifully captured with that single overhead light in a pitch dark room, hovering over Justine’s bed as she fiercely scratches to reveal a crazy looking has invaded her body. It makes you want to scratch your own skin.

There are other fun moments layered in this decadent piece of cinema. For starters, an avalanche of blood is poured over the new recruits, who all get to walk around in sticky, dried bloodied lab coats for the remainder of the day and to top it off, eat lamb eyeballs. Oh yummy. There are also genuine moments where we see a horse being sedated, and the students get to observe it succumbing to it’s unnatural defense of it’s body losing control to sleep. It’s somber in a contemplative sort of way especially when we see the slow motion bits of it running on some kind of treadmill. That had to be a reference to something. Then there’s the eerie moment when the rookies are all crawling on their hands and knees in the middle of the night, which is hauntingly captured in a wide shot as they approach the foreground. It’s such a creepy, cool shot making me think they’re pretending to be animals or maybe it’s intentional degradation since they’re the bottom of the food chain in at a veterinarian school. Either way the cinematography definitely enhanced the story making it feel like your partaking in this crazy journey.

Another critical scene between the sisters, aside from having a lustful crush on the same guy, and the hilarious bikini-wax scene, is when they lock heads, pulling hair, biting each other’s skin off, while blood gushes everywhere. They aggressively duke it out like animals. All out of frustration and a mortified Justine is when she learns Alexia treated her like a drunken, dog at a party making her beg while dangling a cadaver’s dead arm in her face and it was recorded on a phone. It’s sick and twisted. Of course this all builds up to the bizarre, horrific climax. It’s gnarly but captivating because we realize their both cannibals and suddenly the crowd that’s developed around their little spat also realizes these sisters are freaks. So now it’s them pitted against everyone else, and instead of killing each other, they stand in solidarity. It’s a great sequence and interesting, because paralleling back to the bikini-wax scene there’s a moment where Justine is transfixed with the taste of flesh, and smell of blood permeates without any prime or reason, like it becomes a natural inhibition. It just is what it is, a forbidden, awkward nature she’s transcending into for the first time. AND SHE EATS HER SISTER’S SEVERED FINGER! That practical effects teams must have had a hell of a fun time on set!

RAW is visceral beyond measure. A coming of age story with a meaty twist. Ambiguous to a certain degree. I’ll admit it, I was thoroughly grossed out at one particular sequence which involved Justine nervously eating her hair while talking to an instructor which immediately cut to her forcibly vomiting out that hair. It was like watching a plumber snake out a drain from his own mouth. That mental imagery was potent. Yuck! Yuck! Yuck! But I didn’t pass out, I just gagged while watching. Just reimaging it makes me queasy.

However, when revisiting RAW, I couldn’t help at times, but parallel it to Catherine Breillat’s FAT GIRL, a story also about two sisters in a coming of age story but in a slightly heavily sexualized paradigm. The ending had the same impact on me as it is shocking in an unforgiving, tumultuous manner and makes you bellow out, “WTF?” I love when movies do that. It kind of makes you look over here, while it pulls the rug out from under you. If body horror is not your thing, sit this film out or close your eyes at the icky parts. But, I do encourage you to try and watch it, because it tells a provocative, smart story of just a girl exploring the unusual changes of her body, something that happens everyday across the world with the exception of the cannibal twist. It’s only a movie, exploring outside the confines of normalcy. Even if it grosses you out, maybe ask yourself why?