Both filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson and (retired) actor Daniel Day-Lewis are nothing if not incorruptibly meticulous. Their previous union gave us There Will Be Blood, with all of its talk about taking others' milkshakes, which bore the honed craft of two artists at the full peak of their powers. Anderson's films have always been crafted in this careful manner, even his early breakout hit, Boogie Nights, which helmed a chaotic time with particularly prescient mechanics. Over the past decade, the director of The Master and Inherent Vice has pared his work down, instead of sprawling further out, to recede back deeper inside. For the multiple Oscar winner Day-Lewis, easily one of the most venerated actors of his generation, the precision of his character work, be it as the villainous Butcher from Gangs of New York, or the aforementioned, single-minded capitalist Daniel Plainview in Blood, became his calling card: Authenticity hand-crafted the way a cobbler, say, might stitch together a fantastic pair of shoes.
Fittingly, then, the two men have collaborated on another winsome project, featuring a love story between a man so consumed by his prickly, meticulous nature and work-obsession, he requires of his partner a means of saving himself from his own nature, or forever give way to what he deems his "sour heart."
90 Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville, Camilla Rutherford, Gina McKee, Brian Gleeson, Harriet Sansom Harris, Lujza Richter, Julia Davis
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Rating: R, for language
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a fabulously successful dressmaker in '50s-era London, draping international royalty in his beguiling creations, each designed to beautify the bodies inhabiting them.
His life, shared with his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), is worked out to the tiniest detail, such that even his love affairs are managed, commoditized, and, when the time comes, expired by his sister with the merest nod of his head, the women given one of his dresses on the way out as a kind of consolation prize.
But when he meets young Alma (Vicky Krieps), working as a waitress at an inn close to his country estate, he feels the sands of change begin to swirl around his feet as if the drawing wave of low tide. For a man who wields his overpowering self-possession as a kind of battle axe, slicing through the wounded egos of the other women in his life, Alma is surprisingly resilient.
When, after embarking on their affair, he uses her as a model for his dresses, she is utterly unafraid to speak her mind as the nature of the fabrics he has chosen, and when he callously attempts to denigrate her taste, she answers with a simple, firm assertion of her own aesthetic.
Used to being able to control his relationships through the demanding crucible of work -- endlessly sketching designs on his notepad, while demanding perfect silence during his breakfast so as not to break his concentration -- a command the undaunted Alma defies by intentionally making as much noise as possible in the pouring of her tea, and the crunching of her toast, they arrive at something of a stalemate. Woodcock's attempts to cow his partner go unheeded, but nor too, is he any easier to break of his work-obsessed routine, right up until Alma takes things to a higher level in a last-ditch attempt to get him to break the vise in which he has placed himself.
The film's somewhat peculiar narrative eventually arrives at a startlingly effective metaphor for love and devotion: There are times with our chosen partner, where we need to figure out a workaround for them to reach a semblance of balance in their life. Helpless as they might be to their weakness and habits, they require a firm hand to effectively push them off forcibly out of their self-crafted prison.
True love, the film suggests, must go deeper than giving each other what they profess to want, one must go deeper and provide instead what they don't even realize they need. As in Anderson's Punch Drunk Love, which paired Adam Sandler with Emily Watson, the love between Reynolds and Alma is sui generis.
For such a film to work, much as with the dressmaker himself, everything has to be in harmonic balance, first of all the chemistry between the leads -- we're dealing with a man who, upon first meeting the woman who would come to be his wife, already knows with certainty the level of her importance to him, saving his food order written in her hand, for his own posterity before she can even take it to the kitchen, yet doesn't seem to actually kiss her until many months after she has already come to live with him and his sister in their manse -- and to the surprise of no one, Day-Lewis and Krieps cook up a resounding understanding of each other.
Food -- other than milkshakes -- has never factored terribly much in an Anderson film before this one, but here, he associates and binds it with Reynolds' state of mind: Free and clear, he orders a vast breakfast, and happily gobbles it down, brought to petulant distraction by his work, he becomes almost as a hunger artist, taking a nibble of something, before quarreling about the amount of noise everyone is making around him at the table.
This eventually culminates in the single most erotic shot in the film, near its climax, of a bowl of eggs being poured onto a pile of sauteing mushrooms, a pat of butter quickly melting under the heat of the hearth. Theirs is a singular love affair, an arrangement of souls who work like hell to find a place of harmony together, and once nestled in, have no interest in ever turning away.
MovieStyle on 01/19/2018
Print Headline: To the nth degree; Actor and director create a meticulous story of a man obsessed with his work.