Paul Thomas Anderson has done it again: creating an incredible film from subject matter that at first seems like an odd and uninteresting choice. A film about oil was the core for a thrilling film. Here, he takes the eras of 1950’s dressmaking and in a much more subtle way, wrings everything possible from this world to gradually create a psychologically toxic environment and relationship that, while gender roles were different 70 years ago, is still disturbingly prevalent today.
Much like Warwick Thornton in Sweet Country, PTA takes on the role of cinematographer – more directors should operate this way. There are some stunning takes that defy convention, a few scenes perhaps inspired by Renoir, given the movement of multiple characters in the one take. The use of extreme close-ups are also powerful, almost bringing to mind Bergman. In fact this is a film that he could easily have written. A director behind the camera somehow changes the look of the film.
The plot is simple, but the relationship between Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Alma (Vicky Krieps) couldn’t be further from simple. The script is wonderfully written as Woodcock is a fussy man; on one occasion the loud sound of Alma buttering her toast causes an outburst that is actually quite funny in a dark way; he claims that her making of breakfast is breaking his concentration.
In fact, this works as a comedy occasionally when these moments arise; it feels wrong but the things Woodcock says, his immature behaviour, it all makes for awkward laughs while poor Alma is accepting all of it and despite the abuse, she doesn’t leave. This type of relationship is still very apparent today, and Anderson taps into this perfectly. Men often have the ability to own a women, in their mind, criticising and destroying their self esteem.
Sliding into the equation is Cyril (Lesley Manville), Woodcock’s sister, his ‘so and so’, who he treats like a mother, and most certainly better than Alma. Cyril constantly wears a hard, judging expression, rarely smiling, consistently measuring Alma’s worth. The brother/sister relationship is also very psychologically odd, as Cyril essentially acts like a mother tending to a child. And ultimately, that is what is happening. Woodcock is an infantile man who vents his anger towards Alma in the pettiest of ways.
If this is Lewis’ final performance, he has certainly delivered the goods, as one would expect. Woodcock is an extremely complex character with flaws flowing down the waterfall. A welcome change in Anderson’s style is that while the mighty DDL is on screen, he happily hands the reigns to Vicky Kreips, whose’ Alma is a simple character to begin with, but as the relationship begins to take negative turns, unexpected characteristics come to the fore. She effortlessly forms a strange chemistry with Lewis that is very convincing.
The ebb and flow of the relationship between the two, with Cyril interfering, makes for a very interesting psychological study of brother/sister relationships as well as how Alma defies the gender role assigned to women in the 1950’s, creating an initially happy, but eventually morbid, unhealthy attitude. The complexity of their relationship is remarkably written and incredibly unique, as is the character of Woodcock. His wisecracks really are that of a child, yet even with Cyril watching her every move, judging, Alma is willing to stay, to be with him. She is willing to take the abuse. The question we are left with is, why?
A full sixer. It was worth the wait, as PTA delivers again
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