In Phantom Thread and mother!, the story of an artist and his muse unravel in vastly different ways
While Phantom Thread — the more its mysteries are revealed with repeated viewings by critics and audiences — climbs higher and higher towards the pantheon of great films, mother! turns into a film that you’ll either hate or fall in love with, passionately.
That two of the most compelling cinematic experiences of 2017 are driven by the wildly contrasting visions of two gifted directors tackling virtually the same theme is by itself, a cause to celebrate. Throw in the talents of the magisterial Daniel Day Lewis, Lesley Manville at her sharpest, Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem and a dazzling Vicky Krieps — and you have all the makings of a double bill right out of the zaniest cinematic fantasies. If that isn’t enough, consider that while Paul Thomas Anderson (PTA) is in the running for a Best Director Oscar at the 90th Academy Awards, Darren Aronofsky has been relegated to a Worst Director nomination at the Golden Raspberry Awards. For the former’s Phantom Thread has gathered universal acclaim while the latter’s film, mother! has divided audiences and critics right down the middle.
Both films examine the relationship between a self-absorbed artist — a poet in mother! and a fashion designer in Phantom Thread — and the woman who inspires his work. By turns joyous and fraught, often ethereal, the relationships are subject to the artist’s whimsy and art’s nagging habit of unsettling the household order. While Phantom Thread’s Reynolds Woodcock, essayed by Day Lewis, is relentlessly demanding of his muse, Javier Bardem’s poet’s cardinal sin is casual indifference towards Lawrence. Aronofsky cannonades mother! with infernal anxiety that gradually builds towards naked terror. PTA, meanwhile, brings the couturier’s delicate touch to spinning a yarn whose deliberate unravelling is accomplished with a near imperceptible sweeping of the carpet from under our feet. The directors undertake totally different routes to understanding the moral callousness and sheer ingratitude of their artist protagonists. But their vaulting ambitions result in films that go far beyond the fundamental theme to embrace grander philosophical ideas. And not without enlightening, disgusting, challenging and freaking out the viewer on the way.
Phantom Thread is in essence a spy film. It examines the espionage that underlies a romantic relationship. That alone justifies the ineluctable complexity of the film. Once you throw the torrents of an artist’s relationship with his muse, not to forget the ideas of male gaze, objectification, use and abuse that it drags in its wake, you begin to fathom the enormity of the task PTA had at hand. That he chose to turn his protagonist into a fashion designer is smart and prescient. For the warp and weft of the couturier’s art is infused with a touch as delicate and light as the fabric he uses. It also blends perfectly with the multiple strands that run throughout the narrative, their crests and troughs often tangled, expertly delineated by a directorial craft that’s sheer joy to witness.
For a majority of the film, Woodcock looms large upon the women in the film; his muse, played by an incredible Vicky Krieps, most of all. This is quite literally the house of Woodcock and everyone else is a subject. But PTA is too accomplished a director to give his protagonist’s moral delinquency free rein. In a remarkable opening sequence, we see all the old women who work for him walk into the house and up its stairs to the workshop. The camera follows them diligently as they assemble inside a room and commence their daily business of cutting and stitching. It is only when they unfurl a large piece of fabric that the camera glides to a label with the name Woodcock. Right there, the director tells us that it’s these women who make the brand Woodcock. This moment is also the key to the whole film.
With the passage of time, Krieps’ character unspools ever so slowly to go from a defiant model to a quiet, domesticated muse before transforming into a woman in command of her own, and Woodcock’s, fate. PTA handles this progress with awe-inspiring felicity, somehow managing to balance Hitchockian suspense with classic romance. By the time the credits roll, not only have the power dynamics within the relationship shifted considerably, but even the notion of love and romance has been probed and subverted. PTA’s needle has crafted a magnificent, sensual film with a phantom thread.
If Phantom Thread is quiet and light-footed, Aronofsky rides a bulldozer to the house where the poet and his muse reside. Unlike the house of Woodcock, which teems with occupants who are slowly weaned away till only the couple remain, Lawrence’s dwelling witnesses intruders barging in one by one till the gates are flooded by people resulting in a grand orgy of despair and obscure ritual.
We follow the entire film from the perspective of (a) mother, Lawrence’s character. Her idyllic dwelling, a veritable Eden, is gradually contaminated by strangers. She tries hard to keep the house together, all the while attempting to keep her anxieties and Bardem’s ignorance at bay. He seems to enjoy the strangers’ company all the more because their arrival seems to have spawned a renewed artistic drive. Aronofsky characteristically hammers in signs and symbols. The metaphors are loud, heavy and startling. But there’s virtually no background score. The director lets his actors take center stage and allows their bodies and dialogue to provide the rhythm for the film.
This is a different variety of virtuoso at work. One wont to grabbing the subtext by the throat and hanging it on a hook to dry before the audience. For once, though, his manic obsessions are justified ably by the subject he’s chosen, resulting in a visceral and volcanic film experience. mother! is many things. An analogy for the wanton pillage of mother earth. A Biblical allegory. An artist’s parasitic relationship with his muse. But more than anything else, it is Aronofsky’s artistic confessional. Not that he’s a stranger to it. His previous films have attempted the same, with varying results. This time, however, it works perfectly. The disjointed nature of his art finds its fullest expression in mother!
Like every confessional, Aronofsky’s film elicits remarkably different responses from people. So while Phantom Thread — the more its mysteries are revealed with repeated viewings by critics and audiences — climbs higher and higher towards the pantheon of great films, mother! turns into a film that you’ll either hate or fall in love with. As the responses make clear, you’ll do so passionately. And that’s what Aronofsky set out to do in the first place.
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