Phantom Thread: Fashion is Fascism


I must admit that this movie mystified me. I found everything about the film masterful. First of all the acting was brilliant, particularly by the lead actor Daniel Day-Lewis who played wealthy and celebrated fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock. Yet Lesley Manville who plays his sister Cyril with chilling calm that alludes to other cinematic Ice queens, is also sensational. She helps to run the family business, The House of Woodcock, with wooden professionalism and is an able executioner (in the traditional sense) who dispatches her brother’s consorts as soon as he has lost his taste for them. Taste is critically important to this film. Woodcock’s current paramour Alma played by Camilla Rutherford is a surprisingly strong young peasant woman whom he summons to his lair from the hotel dining room where he met her. I call her a “peasant” without derogation, only because she does not fit into the pristine elegance of Woodcock home. She is like a fly on the wall, but she does not buckle in to his cruel disdain. She is not a weak victim of his advances. She is a proper foil to his predations.

The food and clothing, of the finest taste of course, are filmed with leisurely sensual opulence. That was what I liked best about the film, but I don’t know why. For the life of me I can’t figure out why I like that stuff. I think I got sucked in. After all what could be more meaningless than fashion? Fashion is the final refuge of the soul-starved. Fashion is fascism.

Woodcock is a man determined to pursue taste and beauty and demands utter tranquility for that purpose. His wife’s clothes (and his) must be of the finest taste (I presume for I know I confess absolutely nothing at all about good taste) and fashion. His house must be tranquil. That is something Alma cannot provide. She grates and disturbs the tranquility to such an extent that Woodcock asks, Are you sent here to ruin my evening? And possibly my entire life?” Ultimately Woodcock is right when he says, “There is an air of quiet death in this house,” Reynolds says. That is exactly what it is, but it is of his own making, with able assistance from his sister.

So the movie completely mystifies me. Elegance and skill in service of an illusive ideal. I fail to see its purpose. Probably that is because I am not smart enough to see it. As I keep saying over and over again, life is hard when you’re stupid. What was it all for? Craftsmanship without soul? A phantom no doubt.

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