Culture

Phantom Thread and Downsizing: American Decadence, at Home and Abroad

Matt Damon and Jason Sudeikis in Downsizing (Photo: Paramount Pictures)
Two new movies that laugh at Western values

The cynical view of human behavior shared by two new movies, Phantom Thread and Downsizing, was to be expected. They represent the culmination of a cultural change that began as the 1980s indie film movement shifted control of American film production away from the major studios to the entrepreneurship of individual (not necessarily “independent”) outsiders. Filmmakers who prided themselves on making alternative narratives, different from the Hollywood convention, rang eccentric variations on those traditions. They seemed to oppose the established orthodoxies — bringing in underrepresented ethnic and sexual subjects and, indeed, a strain of ruinous, unedifying sarcasm that distorted future audience expectations. Yet all those John Cassavetes, George Romero, and Akira Kurosawa name-droppers still wanted in on Hollywood’s social impact and money (i.e., politics). The sour mockery of human desire that occurs in both Phantom Thread and Downsizing is the result of that revolution.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s fashion-industry setting in Phantom Thread seems to come from left field, delighting in the obscure rituals of haute couture before revealing that its real subject is human perversity as seen in a power struggle between the sexes. Anderson’s view is so sophomoric he doesn’t care whether you get the joke of his deliberately puckish character names: Reynolds Woodcock, a sought-after innovator of female couture, and Alma, his latest model discovery.

In this allegory, the masculine principle (portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis) dominates the enigmatic soulful female, but eventually the roles switch and Woodcock becomes prey to Alma’s power (embodied by the unprepossessing Vicky Krieps, should rhyme with “creep”). This turnabout is a pure ’90s indie stunt. Anderson’s fancy cape-work has always impressed critics who are pledged to the superficially dark, perverse, and eccentric (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, Punch-Drunk Love). This fascination is also sophomoric, based on a shallow misreading of film history in which Anderson’s variations on old Hollywood topics seem brilliantly new.

At first, the inner sanctum that is The House of Woodcock, where the designer and his sister, officious, sexless Cyril (Lesley Manville), run their empire, recalls all those fancy-dressed fashion movies of the 1950s when Dior and Avedon were the rage. Dior and I, about Raf Simons heading the Dior label, revealed the division between creativity and labor. Unlike that recent captivating doc, Anderson glides through the semi-documentary introduction to a private world, keeping things weird with Jonny Greenwood’s deceptively placid piano score. (Not Art Tatum, it’s Kubrick jazz.)

Phantom Thread is a revisionist genre film. Set in the 1950s, it not only reworks fashion flicks from Lucy Gallant to Funny Face (the complementary confluence of two industries) but perverts their female-objectifying iconography. Woodcock is a selfish womanizer (Day Lewis uses soft-spoken tyranny) who, despite his chauvinism, is filled with superstition about his late mother and hides personally reassuring messages in the seams (“You can sew anything into the canvas of a coat”). His creations are, in fact, hideous; the first we see looks like Disney’s Snow White gown, which might be a clue to the poison apple Anderson offers his audience.

One under-criticized tenet of the indie movement is to invert Old Hollywood optimism, appealing to the adolescent thrall with nihilism. So Phantom Thread is the opposite of a fairy tale: Anderson’s satiny-velvety-70mm visual textures reveal repugnant behavior. The only effective moment of human vulnerability is used for comic relief, when Woodcock and Alma mercilessly undress a corpulent, middle-aged drunk who disgraces his green Margo Channing gown. Anderson touches on class issues when Woodcock detests Alma’s noisy eating habits and the hostess of a swanky party makes veiled, possibly anti-Jewish comments. In spite of Krieps’s swanlike neckline, ugly-duckling Alma’s vogue is short-lived; she becomes a creature of baroque feminist revenge.

The sour mockery of human desire that occurs in both Phantom Thread and Downsizing is the result of the indie revolution.

Here’s where Anderson reveals the essence of his indie revisionist sarcasm. Phantom Thread is essentially a smart-ass retort to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), repeating Hitchcock’s basic plot of a psychotic male making over a common girl (James Stewart selfishly “correcting” Kim Novak) into his erotic ideal. But Anderson denies viewers the complex pleasure of Kim Novak’s beauty-to-beauty transformation for something that’s even uglier morally — and does so with a self-satisfied sneer. Hitchcock’s film relayed a private tragedy that explored timeless anxieties; Anderson’s revision deliberately counters those conventions with a fascination for modern decadence.

Well, Mr. Anderson, if that’s your indie definition of love — or cinema — I don’t want it.

***

Alexander Payne, the indie auteur of Election and Sideways, spent $68 million to make Downsizing, which includes an elaborate, digital-effects Al Gore–style lecture on environmentalism. That’s decadence. Even though Payne’s intellectual vanity abhors outright rhetoric, his supercilious vision of America as a “brightly photographed banality” is plenty political — and obscene.

In Payne’s sci-fi-poli-sci premise, an occupational therapist at Omaha Steaks, Paul Safranak (Matt Damon), decides to undergo physical reduction (“go get small”) and live in a specialized “micro-community.” It’s one of those infernal ideas that Hollywood occasionally mistakes for brilliant even though it always becomes tiring (like Groundhog Day, The Truman Show, Her, and the granddaddy of conceptual tedium, John Frankenheimer’s Seconds). Life in Leisureland, where the exchange rate of Paul’s life savings makes him a millionaire, also awakens him to economic inequality: He discovers that immigrant workers live in poverty. (The tenement set itself, like the terraces in Fellini Satyricon, is spectacular. How much did that cost?)

Payne’s deadpan comedy implicates viewers into his view of pathetic, banal people and society. The long wind-up, before Paul is reduced to five inches tall and can be scooped up by a spatula, scores dull points off white suburbia: Payne shows no love for average people; he belittles them by putting their manners in quotation marks. These caricatures (like the vicious sows in Anderson’s melodrama) prove that the indie movement’s petits-bourgeois auteurs lack the grace of De Sica, the Dardanne brothers, Mike Leigh, and Luchino Visconti; hipsters are too hip for humanism. (Payne might have been funnier to depict one-percenter greed as Honey, I Blew Up the Kids.)

However, Payne’s contempt doesn’t stop him from ridiculing the rich (repellent Christoph Waltz plays Dusan, a hustler who brags about “America, the land of opportunity”); it’s the flip side of condescending to immigrant peasants who are too benighted even to recognize a child’s ringworm. The worst of these is Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a “famous Vietnamese dissident” who toils as a janitor. Paul falls in love with her and they journey to Norway, home to the first downsized village and a rumored utopia. Tran might be the most patronized non-white character in modern movies, a one-legged Precious bearing the shame of Western history on her back. She speaks in an annoying, high-pitched voice — the sound of guilt-inducing irritation. She’s also a pathetic, proselytizing Christian who exclaims in broken English, “Thank you, Jesus! I go Norway!” with tears streaming.

As Payne’s conceits pile up, his lecturing, ironically, grows out of proportion. After Safranak and Tran have sex, she screams, “What kind of f— you give me!” Her accusation summons the inescapable quagmire of Vietnam, never to be forgiven. It’s Payne’s ultimate revenge on American film tradition. His inability to imagine an original story — to move an audience’s basic aspirations without guilt — is another sign of decadence.

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