I’ll take a gourmet dinner with a side of poison, please.
In a world of lavish gowns and pure opulence there lies a man who lives for perfection, for control over all of his surroundings, even those he loves. And inside that world we find a woman who does not want to succumb to every perfection he seems to thrust upon her. Love is complicated. We cannot control what others will do or feel or say, no matter how much we wish to, as each human is her own agent. But that won’t stop Mr. Woodcock and that won’t stop dear Alma.
The film wraps you in its arms of luxury, creating an enviable aura of grandeur. But it’s the darkness under the surface that gives the film its depth. Sarcastic quips from Reynolds to Alma, Reynolds’ need to always be absolutely correct and to have everything in what he deems is the right place shows that with all facades, there is an inside that maybe isn’t as enticing as the outside. Alma never knows what she’s doing there, and Reynolds admits that “she doesn’t fit in this house,” yet somehow their equal struggle for power in their relationship is a match. Love is challenging, love is hard. Maybe don’t poison your person, but the struggle for control over others and ourselves is the internal debate we all live.
While all of this meaning is endless, and there are certainly hundreds of takeaways from this film aside from the above, the art of it all is what’s so astounding. Every gown is sublime, the spiral staircase and architecture of the house itself is gorgeous, and the artful shots of car rides and countrysides are just stunning to watch. And then you have the music, which is a beast in it of itself.
The Phantom Thread score is as lush as The House of Woodcock itself. With sweeping string arrangements and romantic piano themes, the music is what envelopes us into the world of Reynolds (whether we really want to be enveloped or not). What the score does so perfectly is emulate the push and pull between the splendor of the House and the darkness within it. Jonny Greenwood’s ability to deliver this nuance is what makes this score so compelling as a musical work.
In particular, “The Hem” opens with an ominous drumbeat, measured piano, high-pitched dissonance in the upper strings paired with grumbling and raw lower strings makes the House feel like a haunted house, not a high fashion dress designer’s studio. But it gives way to a passionate hemiola, an exhilarating but turbulent string melody. And then comes”Sandalwood I,” which continues along this thrilling vain, with deliciously lush harmonies. In fact, the sections of the score that dig deeply into gorgeous chord changes are some of the most moving elements to the work itself.
The score isn’t without its tender moments, with the soft call-and-response duet between violin and cello in “Alma” being one of the greatest musical moments in the entire work. This piece is the piece that feels like love, its melody is so fragile, questioning, soft, and mysterious. Just like love. Greenwood’s use of high dissonances work to create eeriness, even among loving moments, and these dissonances are what carry the underlying uncertainty you have as you watch the film. The tenderness of the music makes you fall in love, the lush romance makes you want to live in the riches of Reynolds’ house.
Indeed, the score can be overwhelmingly romantic at times, but this works in its favor as the main theme of the film comes back with a vengeance while Alma searches for poison mushrooms, dramatically cuts them, and as Reynolds willingly eats. It is melodrama and sarcasm at its best. Without the hammering, loud theme, the humor and shock value would be lost.
Seeing this film in the theater is a wonderful experience, but seeing it with a live orchestra was absolutely unbelievable. The hotly anticipated live performance of the Phantom Thread score accompanied by a projection of the film last weekend at the ever-edgy, absolutely iconic Brooklyn Academy of Music did not disappoint. The Wordless Music Orchestra and London Contemporary Orchestra gave a near-perfect performance: crisp, with the utmost attention to every minor detail, yet delivered with a palpable emotion. Hearing this music live in the room was so emotionally intimate, connecting its audience even deeper into the world of Reynolds. That is the best kind of art: art that creates a universe and invites you in, that makes you feel something, think something, be something.