Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Shape of Water

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
After seeing this film (winner of the 2017 Best Picture Oscar) in the theater, I walked out with two couples. The women liked its romantic story. The men said they didn’t get it. They asked me what I thought. I told them I enjoyed the movie and said it had a little of Beauty and the Beast, a bit of Splash, and there was an element of Moby Dick. I’ll get into these points, as well as others.

The opening voice-over by the character Giles (Richard Jenkins, great as usual) lets us know the story he is telling is a sort of fairy tale, but as it turns out, it is an adult one, and talks about a love that is almost destroyed by a monster. Fairy tales are fantasy works, as is this film, and the director and writer, Guillermo del Toro (Oscar winner for Best Direction), reminds us of the power of imagination through the visual arts. Giles is an illustrator, so he creates images, reminding us of what movies do. The fact that the main character, Elisa (Sally Hawkins) lives above a movie theater and in which she later finds the missing Creature, also stresses the moviemaking experience. After Elisa fills her bathroom and turns it into a romantic aquarium for herself and the Creature (Doug Jones), the water spills into the theater below, and it’s as if our world outside the movie house and the story we are watching flow together, pointing to how stories told through imagination permeate our lives. The later dance sequence that Elisa creates in her dream looks like a Hollywood musical (except for the addition of the dancing Amphibian Man) and reminds us of the magic of the movies.

The story takes place in Baltimore in 1962, around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, as we hear President John F. Kennedy addressing the nation about that incident. The United States in this time period is paranoid concerning the threat of a foreign enemy, and the movie underscores how something as alien as the Creature can be perceived as dangerous. A large capsule filled with water and which contains the Amphibian Man arrives at the Occam Aerospace Research Center. The scientists there want to conduct experiments on the sea Creature. The movie is awash in aquatic imagery. Water is relevant since the Creature lives in it. Rain can fill the city’s canal, thus becoming a liberating force that eventually allows the creature to escape. It also can symbolize tears, as we feel sorrow for how badly others treat the Creature, Elisa, Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer), and Giles. Elisa masturbates in her bath each day, so water is associated with sexuality. Elisa and Zelda work as cleaning women at the research center. They wash away the filth and blood left by those working at the facility, men who soil the world with their cruel experiments on the Creature. The scientists miss the urinals and pee on the floors, as Zelda says, and despite their academic abilities, are ignorant of the fallout of what they do. So, the water used by the cleaning women is used as a purifier. Elisa was abandoned, found near a river, showing her very being is connected to water. Perhaps that is why she has an affinity with the Creature and secretly feeds him eggs (a life-giving symbol) and comforts him with music and communicates with sign language, instead of treating him like a monster. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the security man, only washes his hands before urinating (crudely doing so in front of Elisa and Zelda, showing no signs of decency towards what he considers lowly, defective workers) saying that cleaning both before and after would be a weakness of character. His statement shows him to be at odds with the purpose of water, which is also shown by how he abuses the Creature, and when he drinks only to take his pain pills. Strickland “fishhooks” the Russian scientist toward the end of the film, grabbing him by the wound in the man’s mouth, treating him like a caught fish, in a particularly sadistic act, displaying his evil nature. The dream sequence which involves Elisa and the Creature is suggestive of a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film entitled Follow the Fleet, the reference merging the imagination of the movies with the magical symbolism of water in the movie. At the end of the film, when Giles recites a poem, the words say that the lover can’t describe the shape of his lover, since her worth is boundless. The “shape of water” fits in with this romantic notion, as it is a sort of contradiction, since water has no shape, is mutable, and can be boundless, like love. The conclusion of the film shows that for Elisa, water is almost a symbol of her life-force, and her eventual salvation.

Strickland is the true “monster” mentioned in the prologue. His last name tells us that he follows and enforces the rules of society, and in his case, he does so with cruelty. The film is inspired by the movie The Creature from the Black Lagoon, only the monster here is to be admired and the human is the evil creature. Strickland’s rigidity was forged in the military where General Hoyt (Nick Searcy) tutored him in identifying an enemy and being merciless with it. He shocks the creature with a high voltage cattle prod, a sort of phallic symbol, symbolizing his twisted idea of what masculinity should be. When he has sex with his wife, he covers her mouth, silencing her, not wanting to hear any voice but his own. This scene fits in with why he makes sexual advances toward Elisa, she being mute. When he talks to the two cleaning women, he says he liked the conversation, but he did all the talking. He is not on the receiving end of any communication that may alter his narrow-minded ways. He is also sort of an Ahab character, who was driven by anger and not open to really understanding Moby Dick’s nature. The White Whale chewed off Ahab’s leg, setting off a quest to quench Ahab’s vengeance. Likewise, Strickland has some appendages, a few fingers, bitten off by the Creature he torments, which enrages Strickland. He says he hates the color green, and the Creature is greenish. But, he is persuaded to buy a teal Cadillac. It has fins in the back as part of its design and becomes symbolic of how Strickland is showing his desire for power over the water-based entity he has captured. However, his car is damaged when Giles drives the van which contains the freed Creature into the Cadillac, pointing to Strickland’s inability to hold onto his prize catch. Strickland is driven by his revulsion for anything that does not fit in with his understanding of the world order, with its standards based on superficiality, like the appearance of the Creature, or the color of an African American’s skin. When he talks about how the Creature is not made in God’s image, but that the deity appears more like Strickland than Zelda, he reveals his bigotry.
The story is set at a time when there was a great deal of intolerance toward those who are different (some may say similar to today). The movie has a great deal to do with bigotry and rejection of the outsider who does not adhere to the standards of an artificial norm. Eliza can’t speak, Giles is gay, and Zelda is an African American woman. (Zelda complains about how her husband doesn’t speak much, seeing this characteristic as a flaw, but when he does talk, he betrays her, Elisa and the Creature, showing that Elisa’s silence can be golden). The film subverts conventional thinking. The scientist, Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), is a Russian spy, and we would expect him to be the bad guy by following his superior’s orders to kill the Creature to thwart the American scientists. Instead, he follows his conscience and turns into a hero, helping Elisa save the creature while sacrificing himself in the process.

Giles, because he is an outsider, is Elisa’s best friend. He wants to get his job as an illustrator back, but we get the feeling that he was let go because of his sexual orientation. He wants to be romantic with the seemingly accepting Pie Guy (Morgan Kelley) at the restaurant where he continues to buy pies so he can see the man. When Giles touches the man’s hand, the Pie Guy pulls back in revulsion, and tells Giles it’s a “family” eatery, as if Giles is not fit to be around so-called “normal” people. He also refuses to serve an African American couple, showing the damage he inflicts on others who he rejects for being different from himself. Giles scolds him for his prejudicial action, and it is after this scene that his indignation concerning intolerance gives Giles the courage to help Elisa.

The Creature is a magical figure. Just like the Beast in Beauty and the Beast, despite his initially scary appearance, we discover that he is capable of love and caring, and Elisa turns out to be his Beauty. (Yes, he does attack Giles’s cat, and since I am a cat lover, that was tough to get over. The scene is sort of a flashback to the alien on the TV show Alf, who ate cats. But, the Creature here probably does so out of fear after the animal hisses and growls at him. He does make nice with the other cats after he realizes they will not harm him). After Elisa frees the Creature, who is becoming sick, she nurses him back to health in her bathtub, and follows Hoffstetler’s instructions on how to care for him. The two consummate their love for each other in the watery scene mentioned above. The Creature has healing and lethal abilities. He represents the rewarding of those who are accepting of diversity and who do not swim in the mainstream of society (pun intended here), and the punishing of those who practice hate. At the end, he kills the sadistic and murderous Strickland after the man repeatedly tortured him and shot Elisa. He heals the accidental wound that he inflicts on Giles and touches his head and grows hair, the man’s baldness being an element that undermined his self-confidence. He not only is capable of resurrection (like Christ), after Strickland shoots him, but brings Elisa back to life, transforming her neck scars (possibly inflicted in an early abusive episode? Or, was she an undeveloped sea creature already?) into gills (as opposed to what he did to Strickland’s throat, inflicting a deadly neck injury). His kiss makes Elisa a sea creature, too, and reminds us of Daryl Hannah’s mermaid kiss that transforms Tom Hanks’s character in the movie Splash. The Creature allows Elisa to live in another world where she can be free from the society that marginalizes her because she can’t speak. She can now live in the seemingly limitless vastness of the sea, free to express her individuality, and love and be loved.

The next film is No Country for Old Men.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Paths of Glory

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

Director Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 film that is set during WWI is his first great work, and points to the techniques and themes he would later use in satiric masterpieces on men and war.

The film is shot in black and white which helps to stress the grim state of warfare and the fate of the soldiers made to fight for the questionable honor of their countries. The opening of the movie has the French national anthem playing in the background, but the drum pounding sounds are loud, almost brash, which suggests a patriotism that has been distorted. There is a voice-over narration which sets the scene. The action takes place in France in 1916, which is two years after the start of hostilities between France and Germany. The “battered” French pushed the Germans back from the Marne River after their quick advancement against the French Army. The front was stabilized and turned into trench warfare for “two grisly years,” with little change in the positions of the two military forces. The narrator says, “Successful attacks were measured in hundreds of yards, and paid for in lives, by hundreds of thousands.” From this statement, we see the futility and lethal nature of warfare, as large numbers of soldiers are sacrificed to gain small patches of land for their countries.

General George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) arrives to meet with the local commander, General Paul Mireau (George Macready), who set up his headquarters in a sumptuous French chateau. Broulard comments on the lovely accommodations and Mireau says he tries to create a pleasant atmosphere in which to work. An ironic statement, considering his “work” involves sacrificing his men to kill others. Broulard’s statement about how he wishes he had Mireau’s taste in carpets adds to this feeling of a disconnect between the military brass and the men fighting the war. Broulard says they want to break through the German lines by capturing “the Anthill,” a German stronghold, which is key to the German defenses in the area. The insect name of the hill implies that it is something insignificant when measured against the loss of human life to capture it. Mireau says it’s out of the question and thinks trying to do it in a couple of days is absurd. He says that his division is in pieces now. Broulard tempts him by saying he would get another star and a promotion to a better assignment. Mireau says his reputation and commitment to his men are more important than his ambition. But this is all surface nobility, what he’s supposed to say as a father figure to his men. Once Broulard says maybe Mireau’s men aren’t capable of accomplishing the objective, it seems like a challenge and a questioning of Mireau’s leadership abilities. Mireau changes his stance that the mission is impossible and now says, “We just might do it.” As they speak, they walk around the large room, which emphasizes its majesty, but also shows how small these men are that have the power to send hundreds of thousands to their deaths.

We then get a shot through an opening in the earthen trenches, a far cry from the luxury of the chateau. Mireau walks among the men and his phony patriotic words about being “ready to kill more Germans,” and saying to a soldier that his mother must be “proud” of him, give little comfort to the serviceman whose face and voice appear and sound defeated from enduring the carnage. Mireau repeats the same lines as shells explode close by, the sounds of the death-dealing weapons deflating his presenting war as glorious and heroic. (IMDb points out that the title of the film comes from the line, “The paths of glory lead but to the grave,” from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.”). Mireau then comes to a soldier who doesn’t respond right away and seems confused about whether he has a wife. He then breaks down and says he won’t see his wife because he is going to get killed. Another soldier says he suffers from shell shock. Mireau, who has a scar on his face and at least once was in battle, shows how he has forgotten what war does to a man as he rose through the ranks when he says there’s “no such thing.” Mireau slaps the soldier and says the man is acting like a coward. He wants the man transferred out before he “infects” the others, characterizing the man’s suffering as a type of communicable disease that must be stopped, instead of understanding the nature of his condition. (This episode is echoed later in a similar scene in Patton). From a stylistic perspective, Kubrick uses the first of several narrow tracking shots as Mireau moves through the trench. The effect is claustrophobic, compared to the large, airy chateau room. Kubrick’s style here seems fresh, new, pointing to the future of experimentation in filmmaking.

Mireau visits Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas). The general acts like he doesn’t want to sit, saying he’s not comfortable behind a desk. He’s trying to come off as if he’s not a bureaucrat, but is still an active fighting man, which is just posing. Mireau says a soldier behind a desk is only worried about small things, like a mouse running up a soldier’s leg. Dax, preferring the mundane over the self-destructive nature of men who thirst for the deluded glory of war, and showing he is capable of wordplay, says, “If I had the choice between mice and Mausers, I think I’d take the mice every time.” They look through a scope to see the Anthill, and Mireau says has encountered more formidable objectives. His downplaying is invalidated by more shells exploding right next to them. He calls the objective “pregnable.” Mireau makes it sound as if a battle to take over a spot of land is similar to having a romantic conquest. Dax says Mireau’s speech is like saying something about “giving birth,” which is usually about producing life, but here war is the midwife delivering death. (Kubrick will brilliantly draw connections between the sexual urges of men and their desire to wage war in Dr. Strangelove). Mireau says Dax is clever, and we learn that Dax was a respected lawyer before entering the military, and this bit of information sets the stage for the trial to come later.

Dax had several casualties in a previous battle, but Mireau’s executive officer, Major Saint-Auban (Richard Anderson), says, with a condescending tone, their defeat was “a kind of animal thing,” because they acted like less evolved animals, subject to the herd instinct, bunching together, and making themselves vulnerable. Dax, understanding what a soldier experiences, counters by saying it was “kind of a human sort of thing,” to do, as their lives were threatened, and they sought protection. As characters speak, there is machine-gun fire in the background constantly, implying that there is no escape from danger here. Mireau, despite the extreme probability of defeat, says that Dax’s men will storm the Anthill the next day. The general coolly provides the percentages of men who will get killed by friendly fire, going through “No-Man’s-Land,” (the area between the two military forces), and as they approach the barbed wire defense lines. He acts like it’s their job to “absorb” shrapnel and gunfire so others can get to the goal. He sounds like an accountant spouting statistics involving numbers, not people. Dax says that half of his men will die. Mireau, not showing any empathy, says the losses are “regrettable,” but they will have obtained their objective, which is their duty. Dax quietly objects to not needing to have the French flag waved in front of him to make him charge into battle like a patriotic bull. Mireau says he doesn’t like the French Flag equated with a bullfighter’s cape. Dax says that Samuel Johnson had a different view of patriotism, calling it, “the last refuge of a scoundrel,” emphasizing how some put on a disguise and drape themselves in patriotic fervor to get what they want. Mireau threatens Dax, saying he needs his enthusiastic support, or else he must relieve him of his command. Dax, not wanting to abandon his men in the inevitable battle to come, says his soldiers can take the Anthill.

Three men are assigned to do reconnaissance in preparation for the assault. The men are weary and the leader, Lt. Roget (Wayne Morris) has drunk too much to adequately deal with the mission. He and the other men, Cpl. Phillipe Paris (Ralph Meeker) and Pvt. Lejeune (Kem Dibbs) look like ants, insects ruled by the hive, as they crawl toward the appropriately named Anthill. Drums in the background again reinforce the rhythm of troops marching into war. Dead bodies litter the battlefield, which looks like an open grave cemetery. Roget is a coward, and incompetent. He breaks up the night patrol, which is not a good idea, since it’s difficult to see comrades at night. Roget gets scared and runs off. Paris discovers Lejeune’s body which has steaming smoke emanating from it like he was burned in hellfire, which backs up the saying that “war is hell.” Back at the camp, Paris accuses Roget of cowardice which resulted in Lejeune’s death. Roget, only thinking of saving his own skin, threatens Paris with charges of insubordination and threatening a superior officer. Col. Dax shows up and Roget lies, saying that Lejeune started coughing, thus drawing the attention of the enemy and almost getting the other two killed.

Dax tells his men about the assault on the Anthill the next day. The fact that the weather prediction is for sun all day, making it easier to be seen by the enemy, shows how even the weather adds to the odds of success being against them. We never see any enemy soldiers, which implies that the French soldiers don’t really know who the enemy is, only that they are told by their superiors that they must kill these “others.” After we see how their own commanders treat them, the audience may well question if leaders such as Mireau and Broulard are just as lethal to soldiers as those shooting at them from the other side. Dax informs his men that they won’t receive backup until the end of the day, which demonstrates how the military is not concerned about its infantrymen and will not waste its artillery shells until after the task is accomplished to capture the Anthill. The men begin to accept that they will die in the battle and what’s left to talk about is whether it’s better to be killed by a bayonet, or a machine gun, the latter being quicker. One soldier argues that one must die, so people are more afraid of getting hurt and suffering rather than dying; it’s the manner of demise that we are afraid of. The other soldier says it doesn’t matter how one dies, everyone is afraid of dying. In the face of such a dire situation, all hope is lost, and morbid conversations are all that remain.

On the morning of the battle, the commanders drink cognac, toasting themselves as they hope for victory, but their lives are not at risk. The cut to the trenches shows a different atmosphere, one of dread, as explosions bombard the ears of the soldiers. They huddle against the sides of the trenches as Dax grimly walks among them. The wide-angle tracking shots suggest being caught in a hellish, inescapable maze. The infernal vision of the trenches contrasts with the opulence of the general’s chateau. There is a countdown as to when they will charge, like a countdown to death. Dax leads the assault. As he moves forward with his rallying whistle, men die all around him. Back at command headquarters, Mireau yells that the men are not advancing, and that they are cowards. He orders artillery fire on his own positions to spur his men forward, but which makes him the real enemy, a traitor to his own soldiers.  The Battery Commander, Capt. Rousseau (John Stein), says he can’t carry out such a command unless the general takes official responsibility by writing and signing the order. Mireau relieves Rousseau of his command. Dax tries to get his men who sought refuge in the trenches to try again, but a dead body falls on him as he tries to climb out. It becomes clear to him that any further attempt is futile. Mireau rants and wants the soldiers to receive the death penalty for falling back into their own trenches. He says if the men “won’t face German bullets, they’ll face French ones.” So, the soldiers are in a deadly no-win situation, as they are just as threatened by their own side as they are by that of the enemy.
Back at the chateau, Mireau tells Broulard that he will have ten men from each company in his regiment tried for cowardice and they will receive the death penalty. Dax argues that the men were pinned down, and it wasn’t that they were refusing orders. Mireau says they have “skimmed milk” in their veins, not blood. Dax counters with, “it’s the reddist milk I’ve ever seen. My trenches are soaked with that red skimmed milk.” Dax is angry and says he’s not going to mince words. The outraged Mireau says he’ll place him under arrest. Broulard, who sounds reasonable and calm on the surface, but underneath is just as cruel as Mireau, tries to avoid giving Dax the opportunity to present a negative case against command orders. He says if brought to trial, Dax would be granted all sorts of latitude in presenting his case. Dax does say he didn’t mean to be insubordinate. However, he presses his argument that the men didn’t advance because they couldn’t. The verbally combative Mireau (it’s the only way he allows himself to fight) says that all of Dax’s men are “scum,” and the only way that it could be proven that they couldn’t advance would be if they were killed in the assault. That is quite a lethal argument, not allowing for any survivors. Mireau’s argument is one that most military backers make which is that individual soldiers can’t make any decisions, but must only follow orders, no matter how absurd those orders may be, to avoid chaos in the ranks.

At first Mireau wants a hundred soldiers tried. Dax says why not execute all of them, if they are all to blame. Broulard, always looking to avoid any bad publicity, rejects that idea as extreme. So, Dax is willing to sacrifice himself for his men, and says place the blame with the officer in charge, him. But Broulard doesn’t want to put any blame on officers, he being one in the command hierarchy, and says that would exacerbate the problem. He offers that twelve soldiers can be the scapegoats to take the symbolic blame for the failure to take the Anthill, making sure the General Staff is free from responsibility. When Mireau quibbles, Broulard says they shouldn’t haggle, which is exactly what they are doing, only it isn’t over the price of fruit, but men’s lives. Mireau dwindles the number to three soldiers, who will be picked by the troops. He sheds the blame for singling out specific men by forcing the soldiers to betray their own comrades. The soldiers are made into killers of their own colleagues. In essence they are doing the job of the enemy for them. Of course, it is ridiculous given how many retreated to zero in on only three, but for Dax that’s better than condemning many others. Dax requests that he be able to defend the men, which Broulard accepts, despite Mireau’s disappointment.

Mireau, while with Broulard, runs into Battery Commander Rousseau, and now tries to cover up his order to shell his own men. He says that Rousseau’s shells fell short in the fight, and instead of charging him with disobeying an order, Mireau says Rousseau should report back to his post for further orders. Broulard says the man should be disciplined for his miscalculations, but Mireau doesn’t want an inquiry that might reveal his twisted order, so he tells Broulard that he’ll just reassign the man. Afterwards, in private, behind Broulard’s back, Mireau says he’ll break Dax if he doesn’t drop his defense of the accused three men.

Dax tells three officers to pick one man each for trial. Dax meets with the men chosen. One, Pvt. Pierre Arnaud (Joe Turkel), was picked by a lottery, so arbitrary is the way of determining who might be executed. Paris was chosen by Roget because he confronted the lieutenant about his cowardice and getting Lejeune killed. So, the real coward is not put on trial. Another, Pvt. Ferol (Timothy Carey) who says he was marked as “socially undesirable,” so he was picked simply because others did not find him likable. Dax tells Paris that accusing Roget, an officer, of retribution will only get him in more hot water, and that despite the reasons for how they became defendants, they must deal with the accusations against them. Dax is a bit naive to believe he has a case as he advises the defendants to give simple statements, stick to the facts involving the battle, don’t argue or complain, and look the judges in the eyes.
The trial takes place in the chateau, a civilized, grand place, which is far removed from the cruel reality of the war, and which makes the soldiers who were caught up in the battle seem out of place in comparison. Dax complains that the full charges were not read, but the judges dismiss his complaint, saying they are simply accused of cowardly action. Already, it seems that the proper rules of a fair proceeding are dispensed with. The prosecutor, Saint-Auban, asks Ferol what he did, and will not hear his description of the situation, what he saw, or anything about the bullets zinging around him, thus not allowing for any true picture of the circumstances. Ferol said he advanced to “No-Man’s-Land,” and then retreated. The court isn’t even ready to give Dax a chance to question Ferol, and he must ask for permission. Dax says Ferol was with another private, so why did they not try to capture the Anthill. Ferol says he must be kidding, which is the point that Dax is making, that it was absurd for them to continue to attack. The chief magistrate (Peter Capell),  however, doesn’t see the point, because he believes a soldier follows orders, no matter the circumstances.

Arnaud is next and testifies that he advanced until ordered to stop. He made it only to his own wire defenses. The prosecution gets him to say that he did not advance “many” meters before stopping. He is also asked if he urged others to move forward, to which Arnaud says everyone around him was either dead or wounded. Yet, the prosecutor again asks the absurd question in order to get his negative answer. Dax asks if his action was any different than the others, and Arnaud says no. Dax is trying to show how the choosing of these men to stand trial is unfair, saying that Arnaud was singled out based on a lottery, not because he was a coward. The judge says Arnaud had as much chance as any other to not be accused, which dispenses with the questionable point of having the lottery to start with, and zeroes in only on the fairness of the steps following the acceptance of the method of choosing who was tried. Dax wants to read into the record how Arnaud has no record of cowardice in his past, and in fact that he distinguished himself in battle. The judge says it’s irrelevant, that only his current behavior is on trial, which dispenses with the question as to whether it is valid to accuse this one man of cowardice out of all the others who retreated without considering what may distinguish him from the others not accused. It would be as if five men allegedly robbed a bank, and the prosecutor picked only one name out of a hat to determine who should stand trial, and then the judge threw out all the evidence that could show him as less guilty than the others.

When questioned, Paris says he never left the trenches. Dax asks him why he didn’t leave, and he says a man who was shot dead fell on him and knocked Paris out during the attack. The judge, presuming the man is guilty instead of innocent, takes over the prosecutor’s job, showing the court’s prejudice, by saying Paris has no witnesses to back him up, and the large scar on his forehead could have been self-inflicted afterwards, and not incurred from the falling man.

In his summation, the prosecutor says the attack on the Anthill was a “stain” on the nation’s honor, and there must be atonement by executing the guilty. Dax does not hold back, saying, “There are times that I’m ashamed to be a member of the human race and this is one such occasion.” He says he protests the authenticity of the court by not allowing him to present witnesses to support his arguments, and yet the prosecution offered no hard evidence or witnesses to support its case. He also complains that there were no written charges, and there was no recording of the proceedings. Dax reverses the prosecutor’s charge as to where dishonor really exists, and says not the battle, but the trial is a “stain” on the nation’s honor.

We don’t even hear a verdict. It is a foregone conclusion. Instead, we have a scene where the soldier in charge of the execution squad tells the men that they must carry out their orders, or they will be held responsible. Basically, there is the threat of putting guns to the heads of the men in the firing squad if they don’t shoot their weapons. Thus, there is no room for free choice in the military. The story presents the different reactions of the sentenced men in order to be realistic in depicting how soldiers might truly respond to such a situation. The condemned are given a last meal (like one really has an appetite before one’s own execution), but Ferol, after first taking some bites of roast duck, spits out the food, thinking they are being drugged into being docile for the firing squad. He still says Dax will think of something to get them freed. He is still in denial. Arnaud is angry and desperate. Paris wants to escape, but eventually realizes it’s hopeless.

The chaplain, Father Dupree (Emile Myer) comes to the cell and says that Dax sent him. The priest says that Dax found no men in charge wanted to be involved in the case, washing their hands, like Pontius Pilate, trying to absolve themselves of responsibility. Ferol, the reality crashing in on him, cries. Paris asks that the priest send his letter to his spouse, in which he says he tried to tell what happened, but concedes that there is no way to really explain the absurdity of what has occurred. Even though not religious, the priest gets Paris to make his confession. However, Arnaud says the priest’s line about how “Death comes to us all,” is a sanctimonious cliché. Arnuad says his religion is the wine he drinks, and mocks confession as he prays to the bottle. For him right now, religion is equated with the numbing effects of alcohol, both providing an escape from reality. The priest says God has the power to save, but Arnaud says there is no saving here. He hits the priest, and is ready to attack Paris, who hits him hard, causing a skull fracture. He is unconscious, and the priest says they wouldn’t execute him in this state. But, the doctor (Halder Hanson), who says the man might not last the night, and is supposed to care about the well-being of patients, says the execution will occur, so they should make sure that Arnaud is vertical for the firing squad. He adds that the general will want Arnaud conscious, so he can experience his execution. In other words, God forbid he should die before the military gets its scapegoat blood spilled, or that the commanders don’t get a chance to see the man face the horror of his own death.
The coward, Roget, is with Dax, saying how unfortunate the executions will be, and how no one is happy about them. Dax repeats his words, mocking Roget’s watered-down sense of being upset. Dax asks why he picked Paris? Roget responds with the explanation that somebody had to be picked. Dax knows that Roget did it to get rid of Paris and his accusations against Roget. As retribution, Dax says he needs to pick someone to head up the firing squad, so it will be Roget. He tells him that he has to tie the men to the posts, offer blindfolds, give the order to shoot the men, and then use his revolver to put a bullet in each man’s brain to ensure the execution. He wants the weak-willed Roget to feel the weight of his guilt for sending an innocent man accused of being a coward to his death, when it was Roget who was the one who was truly guilty of the charge. Rousseau enters saying he has information that bears on the trial. We know he is going to tell Dax about Mireau’s order to fire on his own troops, which shows that there are still honorable men in the military.

The next scene has a tracking shot, though in contrast to the horrific one in the trench, showing dancers at a military ball amid elegant surroundings and music as those present enjoy themselves while others suffer their fates at the hands of the privileged men in attendance. Broulard’s dance is interrupted because Dax wants to speak with him. The general admits that the number of casualties shows that Dax’s men may have made a good attempt to take the Anthill. Dax says if so, how can the execution of the men take place. Broulard admits that the General Staff may have known how the attack had a zero chance of success, but the commanders are subject to criticism from the press and elsewhere, and they have to put up a show of strength in the waging of the war. So, he says, “why should we have to bear any more criticism for failure than we have to.” Instead those in charge delegate the blame for being unsuccessful onto the almost anonymous innocent soldiers who have no power to fight the injustice they must endure. Broulard goes on to say that the executions boost morale because seeing someone else die is “fundamentally encouraging and stimulating,” motivational, one might say. He uses “morale” in a strange way here, because it is supposed to be a positive stimulant, not the negative reaction to fear of punishment invoked by lethal means. Broulard condescendingly says that the troops are “like children.” They crave discipline like from a father. Kubrick’s satiric voice is now heard, one to be sounded loudly in Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket, when Broulard says “one way to maintain discipline is to shoot a man now and then,” hardly the equivalent of a parent’s grounding a child or issuing a stern reprimand. Not being able to believe his own ears, Dax asks, “Do you sincerely believe all the things you’ve just said?” Broulard looks at Dax askance, as if to say this is no time to be honest, because he must maintain this front to justify the despicable actions of turning the pursuit of victory into a public relations show. Dax then drops the bomb about Mireau ordering the firing on his own men. Dax gives him sworn statements attesting to Mireau’s orders. Dax says it will be a publicity nightmare (talking Broulard’s language). He argues that if the three soldiers are not executed, then it will show that the General Staff was acting justly in blaming Mireau for his failure to take the Anthill and recklessly endangering his own men as he desperately tried to deal with his failure. He then tried to shift his blame onto innocent soldiers by putting them on trial. Broulard excuses himself, making no promises.

The next day, the detail of men to carry out the execution show up where the prisoners are confined, so we know Broulard is not stopping the executions. Paris engages ironically in small talk with the sergeant in charge, but then breaks down, and says that he doesn’t want to die. The sergeant tells him to act like a man in his moment of death since he is not alone as many of them will, sadly, be joining him soon. The ceremony of execution is formal and staged in front of the large chateau. They carry Arnaud in a stretcher, making the scene even more pathetic. Ferol walks with the priest, but cries, saying he fought on the battlefield with the others, so why is he being singled out? He is scared, and the film tries to show how men might really feel and act at this moment, not in the John Wayne stoicism that men are told to exhibit, which is not authentic and allows them not to be genuine about their feelings. The priest tells Ferol he can’t question the ways of God, but it is like admitting to the man there is no reasonable explanation to resolve what is happening to Ferol and the other two. The sergeant pinches the cheek of Arnaud so he can be alert to be killed, conjuring up the phrase “cruel and unusual punishment.” Roget is there offering blindfolds, and apologizing to Paris, which is too little, too late. This scene somewhat resembles the three men at Christ’s crucifixion, since Jesus, like these soldiers, made a sacrifice so others would be spared condemnation. The drums sound like exaggerated heartbeats, that then cease as the weapons are fired.

The next scene ironically offsets the horror of the previous scene, as Broulard and Mireau eat in the chateau, with Mireau thanking Broulard for being there at the execution, supposedly to lend him support at such a grim scene. Mireau says, however, there was “splendor” in the scene, and Broulard says he had never seen this type of “affair” (a euphemism, like it was an entertainment event) handled better. Mireau says one worries that the condemned might spoil it with an unsightly display, again showing how appearances are more important than the awful truth of what is happening. Today we call it “optics.” Broulard had summoned Dax. Mireau tells Dax his men “died very well,” as he stuffs his mouth, still able to enjoy the pleasures of being a living general, who can easily dispense with those down the chain of command. Then Broulard casually brings up the order to attack Mireau’s own troops. Of course, Mireau denies it despite the evidence. Broulard says then he will be able to clear his name in an inquiry, since he doesn’t want this to become a public smear. Broulard did not stop the executions, not wanting Dax to think he could control him. But, he doesn’t want a scandal, so he makes Mireau a scapegoat, ironically just as Mireau made his men play the same part. Mireau tells Broulard that he was the only “innocent” man being harmed here, which is the opposite of what happened, the true innocent men having been put to death. Mireau is a murderer, (but so is his accomplice, Broulard), but he gets away without being executed. Mireau says that Broulard’s treachery was inflicted on “a soldier,” which is what he calls himself, but Mireau himself brought harm to the real soldiers in his command. After Mireau leaves, Broulard says to Dax it had to be done, because they can’t have fools running the show. What he’s really saying is Mirerau wasn’t smart in playing his role in the planned massacre. Broulard then offers Dax Mireau’s job. Dax bluntly asks if he wants him to tell Broulard where to shove the promotion. Broulard angrily says he better apologize. Dax, really apologizing to himself, says he apologizes for not “being entirely honest with you. I apologize for not revealing my true feelings. I apologize, sir (a sarcastic use of the title), for not telling you sooner that you’re a degenerate, sadistic old man, and you can go to hell before I apologize to you now or ever again.” Broulard smiles and says Dax is a disappointment. He thought he was like himself, just angling for himself to get Mireau’s command. Broulard now realizes that Dax is an idealist, and was sincere in his defense of the men, and was not after personal ambition. He sees Dax as naive as “the village idiot.” He tells him he “spoiled the keenness of your mind by wallowing in sentimentality.” Broulard says they have to win a war, and the men were shot because they didn’t fight to reach that objective. He insisted that Mireau be made to answer for the charges against him, and then asks where has he done anything wrong? Dax says if he doesn’t know the answer, then he pities him, for Broulard has no empathy or compassion for others.

The story ends with a scene at a tavern, where the host brings out a German woman. The French soldiers at first boo, then jeer, and objectify her sexually. But then she sings a melancholy song, as tears appear on her face. The soldiers listen, and then the men sing along, some joining her with their own tears. The German woman, supposedly representing the enemy, becomes a maternal symbol, singing to them a lullaby, as if trying to soothe the frightened children inside these men. They join in the desire for release from the anger and hatred that rips people apart. Outside, away from the womb-like comfort of the tavern, Dax is told that that they have been ordered back to the front. He says the men should be given a few more minutes of escape from the realities of war.

The next film is The Shape of Water.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Phantom Thread

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

The title of this 2017 film, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is presented with looping lines, similar to thread being woven, but it is winding, possibly showing the twisted nature of its characters. The story takes place in the 1950’s, primarily in London, although the exact time is not specified. Alma (Vicky Krieps), is speaking to someone about famous clothes designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis). The name suggests stiffness, which fits Reynolds’s demeanor. The dictionary describes a woodcock as an “Old World” bird, which is in tune with the man’s desire for traditional preferences, and his resistance to change. The first shots of Reynolds show him shaving, combing his hair, trimming his nose hairs, and polishing shoes, which tells us that he is concerned about appearances, which fits his trade, but possibly to the point of not caring about the person that exists beneath the surface. The music, which features a cascading piano, sounds elegant, again reflecting Reynolds’s world. His beautiful London house is in keeping with the man’s personality, definitely not modern, sticking with tried and true designs, but also feeling a bit sterile.
Women enter the house and must ascend steep stairs to reach the exalted artistic height of their employer. They are seamstresses and are part of Reynolds’s female workforce, sewing his name in every one of his designs. They serve him, along with the house staff and the models, as he lords over them like a prince with his harem. There are many close-ups of him, the clothes, his working on drawings, and even the coffee brewing and the breakfast cakes. The camera work gives the film a microscopic sense, focused and restricted, like Reynolds’s life, and it almost feels claustrophobic. He ignores Johanna (Camilla Rutherford), the woman at his breakfast table, as she talks of sampling some food. He says without looking at her “no more stodgy days,” criticizing her mundane conversation. Reynolds’s voice is high-pitched, almost feminine, and it sounds artificial, distancing, as if he is putting on a show of upper-class diction.

His sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), (a man’s name, which, along with being his sibling, probably allows Reynolds, who has trouble relating to women, to better deal with her) joins the other two at the breakfast table. She is very prim and proper. She is also very pale, almost looking like a ghost, perhaps a remembrance of their mother, or someone who has lost some of her life force serving her brother’s artistic endeavors. She takes care of the business part of Reynolds’s occupation. Johanna says she can’t get Reynolds to focus back on her. One gets the feeling that she is one in a string of short-term girlfriends, doomed to be heading toward the exit. He says he must deliver his new dress this day and has no time for “confrontations,” which automatically means he sees her as an impediment to his creative work, not someone with whom he shares his life. For Reynolds, like many great artists, his creations take priority over people. There is an irony in that women finance his work, and he must use female models to display his craft, but they always seem to disappoint him, and he perceives them as being unworthy to wear his dresses.

Little details in the film show how Reynolds requires that everything complies with his precise way of living. For instance, Cyril walks in the house, but closes an open door, because nothing must be out of place. The Countess Henrietta Harding (Gina McKee) arrives, and he greets her warmly, since he is delivering a dress for royalty, which befits his creation. She models it for him as he seriously scrutinizes it to see if it works. He smiles, and she says it was worth all they went through, which makes it sound as if it was an ordeal to get it to meet Reynolds’s expectations. She says to put on the gown will give her “courage,” bestowing on Reynolds’s work powers to change the person that wears one of his dresses.

Reynolds meets Cyril for dinner, whom he often calls his “Old so-and-so.” It is not very affectionate, or personal, and sounds more like someone to rely on over time, which reveals Reynolds’s selfish and dependent nature. She asks what he wants to do about Johanna, who has obviously worn out (pun intended) her usefulness to him. Cyril says she is lovely, “but the time has come. And she’s getting fat sitting around waiting for you to fall in love with her again.” Cyril understands her brother’s ways, but is very direct in dealing with them. She says she will give Johanna the October dress, the fall month symbolizing the movement toward the dead of winter.

He says he has an unsettled feeling brought on by memories of their mother. He has had dreams containing her “scent,” which implies she is still close to him even after her long ago death. He admits that he feels as if she in near them, reaching out to them. He hopes his mother saw the Countess’s dress that day. He says, “It’s comforting to think the dead are watching over the living.” He is seeking her approval beyond the grave, so powerful is her impact on her son. (There will be other reference to wanting to break the limits of mortality in the movie). His mother haunts him, and there is an Oedipal element here. It may be why he has trouble relating to women because they can’t measure up to his mother.

Cyril recommends going to his country house, and he likes the idea. He goes to eat at the Victoria Hotel there and sees a waitress who stumbles about. He is drawn to her, possibly like in Pygmalion, inspiring him to transform something, that has artistic potential in its raw form, into his own creation. She takes his detailed order, then Reynolds takes what she has written down, and asks if she will remember, which she says she will. She smiles, and although this is a kind of flirting, it also seems to be a test. She remembers his order, and, after she serves him, he asks her to dinner. She already has a note ready for him, which says, “For the hungry boy, my name is Alma.” Her prepared message shows her confidence, knowing he would ask her. But, she uses the word, “boy,” not “man,” implying she correctly assesses Reynolds as childlike in his memory game with the order. Also, being “hungry” will be revisited in the story and will refer to sexual and mother-son issues.

At their dinner, Reynolds asks Alma what she thinks of what she is eating. He is observing her, not participating in the meal with her. She says she likes the sauce, but he corrects her by saying it is a custard, thus showing off his superior cultural knowledge. He wipes the lipstick off her, saying he wants to see who he is with. He is controlling the situation. She goes along with it as if it is all playful. He wants to know about her mother and says Alma should always carry a picture of her mother with her, because she should always be with Alma. This advice points to Reynolds’s attachment to his own mother. He says he carries his mother with him, tapping his jacket, which he calls the “canvas,” because he sees his clothes designs as art, like a painter. He says one can sew inside the cloth secrets, coins, words, and messages. His mother taught him his trade, and his work is her legacy that he carries on. When he was a boy he hid things in the linings of the fabric, that only he would know about. He confesses to having sewn a lock of his mother’s hair into the fabric over his breast to keep her with him. She haunts him, and he haunts others with his woven secrets, which lends weight to the movie’s title, Phantom Thread. It gives him a sense of power over the garments he sends away, makes them still his, by knowing secrets about his dresses that the owner does not.

Reynolds says he was sixteen when he sewed his mother’s second wedding dress, his father having died when Reynolds was young, contributing to the Oedipal bond. He says his nanny, the Evil Miss Blackwood, who he called “Black Death,” was ugly, (his revulsion strengthened by the fact that she was a substitute mother), and wouldn’t help him sew for fear of never marrying. He says that there are superstitions about wedding dresses, such as if you sew one, you won’t marry, or, young girls won’t marry if they touch one. There is a belief that models will marry only bald men if they put one on. Here again we have a sense of the magical power that people bestow upon clothing, making it almost a metaphor for how religious beliefs are created. Reynolds does admit that his dresses can decay, since he says the dress he made for his mother probably turned into ashes, perhaps like his mother’s body, but that is why he needs her spirit to live on. Cyril rescued him, he says, after months of sewing, helping him with the dress. Alma asks if Cyril never did marry, which she hadn’t, which suggests that maybe the superstition is true, but it is more likely she sacrificed that part of herself for her brother.

Alma says Reynolds is handsome, has been around many beautiful women, so she asks why he never married. He says he makes dresses, which may mean that those are his brides. He says he is a confirmed bachelor, “incurable,” which is an interesting word, which makes him almost admit that he may feel that his unmarried state is a form of a disease. He says marriage would make him deceitful, and doesn’t want that, maybe because he would have to lie to seem accepting of a spouse, which he knows his demanding personality would not allow. He says, “it’s the expectations and assumptions of others that cause heartache,” so women will expect him to meet their desires, not his own, which he sees as paramount. And, he always is let down by what he expects from a female partner.

Reynolds asks Alma to try on a dress, which turns their night into a very strange first date. She becomes an object, a mannequin in a way, as he pins the dress up. He tries to see which fabric would go best with her. He asks to take her measurements. Then, to add to the oddness of the night, Cyril arrives. She smells Alma, noticing sandalwood, rosewater, sherry, and lemon juice emanating from Alma, the latter because the restaurant served fish for dinner. Brother and sister have acute sense abilities as to the visual, tactile and olfactory areas. Cyril also at this point does not see Alma as an individual, only concentrating on her perception of Alma, as Reynolds only sees her in connection with his art. Cyril records Alma’s measurements, which should be personal, but become just statistics for Reynolds’s art, as she is examined like a medical patient. Alma’s expression is one of feeling uncomfortable. She quibbles over the exactness of his commands on how to stand, as a form of rebellion. He bluntly declares that she has no breasts. He says it’s okay, it’s his job to give her some, “if I choose to.” His statement shows his power over her, as if he can improve her through his, again, magical abilities, but which also shows he doesn’t accept her as she is. Cyril says she has the ideal shape, which first sounds like a compliment, but then Cyril says, “he likes a little belly,” which then takes away from the “ideal’ compliment.
In a voice-over, Alma, as she tries on another dress, says she thought she had too many physical imperfections concerning her hips, breasts, and arms, which reveals her insecurities. But, as she walks with Reynolds on the beach, he holds her hand, so she feels he is drawn to her, which makes his acceptance of her seductive. He says he has been looking for her for a very long time, but as it turns out not as a person, but as a muse whose goal is to inspire, not share, the artist’s life. She says to Reynolds “whatever you do, do it carefully,” which shows how she surrenders to him, but wants his transformation of her to be well thought out; however, it can also be a warning not to hurt her. In the voice-over, she says in his work she becomes perfect, and feels just right. She considers that maybe that is how all women in his clothes feel, which again emphasizes the almost supernatural effect that females attribute to his dresses. As Alma and Reynolds go out dressed formally for dinner, he says how beautiful she looks, and that is making him extremely hungry, which merges culinary and carnal appetites together. But, then Cyril joins them for dinner, deflating Alma’s hope for an intimate dinner. Brother and sister talk, leaving Alma out of the conversation. They stay overnight at the inn, but in separate rooms. Alma seems let down by his lack of an attempt to be romantic, Reynolds feeling more comfortable with his “old so-and-so” sister rather than initiating a physical connection with her.

Alma boasts that she can be still for a very long time, which she feels shows how she a perfect model on which Reynolds can display his dresses. While they are working he asks why she seems “forlorn.” She says maybe she doesn’t like the material of the dress she is wearing, but it is really because she is not sensing that Reynolds feels emotionally for her. Cyril is condescending when she says how the women who purchase their dresses adore the fabric. Reynolds says Cyril is right, not because of the clients, who do not rise to his level of interest, but because the fabric is beautiful, stressing the artistic component. He says snobbishly toward Alma that maybe she will eventually have some taste. She defiantly says, “Maybe I like my own taste.” He says just enough to get her into trouble, because her opinion will only lead her astray, which is way of issuing her a warning, Not wanting him to get in the last word, she defiantly says maybe she is looking for trouble. He quickly demands her to, “Stop!” He won’t tolerate her back-talk, since her view is not valued by him, or her independence in issuing it.
While at another dinner, again with Cyril, and a male acquaintance, two women approach them (we don’t see them, because they are of no importance to Reynolds), and say that one of them hopes to wear one of his dresses, and maybe be buried in one. Cyril gives them a curt thank you and says a “good night” to dismiss them. The male guest, in what is really a cruel joke, says something about maybe digging the dress up after the girl’s funeral and selling it again. Alma acts flirtatious to gain Reynolds’s attention, and suggestively asks him if he had enough to eat, and that he looks thirsty, as if implying that he may still hunger and thirst for sex.
Reynolds, aroused, drives her quickly to the London townhouse and he pulls her inside the bedroom. But the next day at breakfast, she acts familiar, kissing Reynolds before sitting down, but he doesn’t even register her existence, sketching, with no lingering affection. Cyril almost looks like she sees Alma as a complication that she will have to deal with, like another Johanna. Alma makes noise scraping her toast, clanking her butter knife, and pouring tea. He tells her not to move too much, which she, upset by his reprimand, says she isn’t moving too much, only buttering her toast. He says she is very distracting. He is like many exceptional temperamental artists who put their art first to the detriment of others. She says he pays too much attention to things, but he leaves angrily saying it’s like she rode a horse across the room, so magnified are his perceptions of his surroundings. Cyril, giving advice, says it’s better she eat breakfast after Reynolds is finished with his meal, or maybe she should eat in her room. Alma says he’s too fussy, but Alma says this quiet time of the day must not be “misused.” She informs Alma that if breakfast isn’t right, it’s hard for Reynolds to recover for the rest of the day, so fragile is his insulated, ego-centered world.
When Reynolds does dress Alma up, and her hair and makeup are done, she appears regal. He says that he had a fabric that he “rescued” from being lost, as if it was like a rare artifact, so sacred does he regard his calling. He does see her as his muse to make something of this fabric. But again, a muse is only needed in service to the artist, and not as someone divorced from that occupation. His “fussy” ways make him a perfectionist in his work, but a disaster in personal relationships. In one scene, Alma knocks on Reynolds’s door, but he won’t open it because he is “working.” He doesn’t even answer when she asks if he needs anything, implying she does not satisfy his everyday human needs outside of occasional carnal ones.

There is a showing with many models, including Alma, displaying his gowns,. He is anxious and demanding, showing anger at the models for not living up to his expectations. His exasperation drains him, and Alma says in the voice-over that he gives so much to his work that he must come down again occasionally to regenerate (this statement is actually a bit of foreshadowing). She mothers him, which is what he really wants from a woman. She drives his car for him. He lies in bed, and she brings him food. She says he is like a spoiled little baby. He is very tender, open, and she cuddles with him. We now see Alma’s voice-over comes from an interview with a man. She says Reynolds’s down times last a couple of days, and then he becomes difficult again, as we see when Alma caringly brings him tea while working, and he complains that he didn’t ask for it. He then complains that she is exceeding her boundaries by bothering him so late. She says she is removing the tea. In a very good line mirroring his self-centered view, he says, “The tea is going out. The interruption is staying right here with me.” He is not someone who goes with the flow.

While Alma is in the woods gathering mushrooms, we hear the voice of the housekeeper who told her how to identify the ones that are poisonous. This shot is a foreshadowing of what is to occur later. The scene also shows how Reynolds is hypersensitive in everything, including his food, and “detests too much butter.” He doesn’t just dislike it, but has a heightened distaste for it. Alma quietly allows him to sketch in the evening, while she knits a pattern, and they look like an old married couple, comfortable together, but not really interacting. At breakfast, Cyril mentions that a middle-aged wealthy patron, Barbara Rose (Harriet Sansom Harris), may ask Reynolds to attend her wedding, because he has been commissioned to make the gown for the ceremony. Reynolds doesn’t like the idea, probably because he feels this particular woman will especially debase his art. She says that he should accept the invitation, if he can stomach it, another reference to food, and also a bit of foreshadowing. He says to her that he wishes he heard about it later, the early news disrupting his delicate mood for the day during breakfast. But, Cyril reminds him that the woman “pays for this house,” so his sister’s business acumen forces Reynolds to compromise his artistic superiority.
Barbara Rose visits Reynolds’s London house, and Reynolds starts to fit her. She is not an easy client, as she tugs at the dress, pulling the front over her face, saying she still looks ugly, the power of his work not working the magic for her. He attempts to reassure her that he is trying to make a beautiful dress. She insists that he attend the wedding, but although he says it’s not his place, he loses the argument. While at the wedding, she again wants her dress to cover her sagging neck. At the reception, she is drunk, and must be carried out. Alma is upset for Reynolds, saying that the “dress doesn’t belong here,” and of Barbara, “She doesn’t deserve it.” Emboldened by Alma, Reynolds angrily goes to Barbara’s room, and demands the dress back. When he finds that Barbara has passed out in the dress, he sends Alma into the woman’s bedroom to take it off of her. Alma forcibly declares that Barbara can’t behave like this and be dressed by “the House of Woodcock.” After her overt declaration of allegiance, Reynolds kisses Alma passionately, and thanks her.

But, although he is polite to her, Reynolds doesn’t praise Alma to Cyril the next day. He doesn’t even introduce her to the royal guest, the Princes Braganza (Lujza Richter) who is having Reynolds make her wedding dress. (He says it will be so grand that it will be “the only wedding dress,” worthy of the name, so full of hubris is Reynolds). Alma introduces herself to the Princess, and boasts that she lives at the house, attempting to announce her importance. To show her desire to be special to Reynolds. she tells Cyril she wants the house vacated after he goes for one of his regularly scheduled walk. She wants to cook him dinner (food again, as an appetizer to being intimate?) and to dine with him alone. Cyril says it’s a bad idea, not only because it will disrupt Reynolds’s precious routine, but also she probably feels it’s a mistake for Alma to attempt to get too close to Reynolds.

On the night in question, Cyril says “good luck,” to Alma, knowing that she will need it. When Reynolds comes home, Alma tells him she loves him, which he glosses over, again not considering the feelings of another, and wants to know where Cyril is. It’s like he needs his sister with him as an anchor he’s had since his childhood, which he hasn’t really grown out of. She’s a substitute for his mother, and despite her cold ways, takes care of the unsavory aspects of the business, and protects him from the outside world. He appears neurotic as he says he has been disoriented by this disruption in his day, and says he must collect himself. He tells Alma he needs a bath first, and, although briefly acknowledging her kind act, quickly moves on to assessing her dress, her appearance, not the person wearing it, and wants to know when his safety blanket, Alma, will return. For dinner, Alma prepared the asparagus with butter, and he is appalled that she did it knowing how he likes it with oil and salt. Exasperated, she questions what is she doing there, waiting like an idiot for him, not, as we would expect, to come around to loving her, but instead to get rid of her. He says he doesn’t need her, and considers the night an ambush, and he could better be using his time alone. She complains that even when they are alone there is always distance between them. She calls him out on being rude and a bully. The rules he lays down, the stiff, unspontaneous way he goes about living, she argues, is all a game. “Nothing is normal or natural,” Alma says, and his contrivances suggest that they are really props to keep him from being evolved emotionally, looking beyond himself. He is like a “child,” who only wants to satisfy his own wants. He says that if she doesn’t like his life, then she should go back to where she came.

In the interview, Alma talks about how Reynolds needs to slow down a little once in a while. We then cut appropriately to her reading a book about mushrooms, including those that are poisonous, and the music takes on base sounds, indicating something dire is planned to “slow” Reynolds down, as Alma starts cooking. Cyril asks if Reynolds wants her to ask Alma to leave. He says no, but Cyril says he shouldn’t turn her into a ghost (making her only into a memory, like his mother, possibly because he seems to deal better with incorporeal people than live ones?). Cyril says she has grown fond of Alma and doesn’t want her to just hang around waiting for Reynolds to go to her. He acts nasty toward Cyril about her declaring her fondness for Alma. Cyril shows her strength in not allowing herself to be attacked by her brother. She says to him, “Don’t pick a fight with me. You certainly won’t come out alive. I’ll go right through you and it’ll be you who ends up on the floor. Understood?” She is reminding him how she is the strong one of the two. She can walk away, but he depends on her and is vulnerable without her support.

Reynolds is not well when he starts his day. He says the dress for the Princess is ugly, and he falls over, damaging the gown. He goes to his room and vomits. Alma comes in to comfort him, and he says it must have been something he ate. We know it was her that poisoned him, to make him dependent on her. It also shows how she is a formidable opponent. She takes off his shoes and helps him to bed, like a sick child, closing the curtains, sitting up with him, holding his hand, again assuming the role of a mother. Cyril shows up, and tells Alma to leave him, but she doesn’t. He continues to be sick, while the others try to repair the dress. He asks Alma if he will ever get better, like a scared little boy, and she helps him change his fever-soaked pajamas, assuring him she will take care of him. Cyril says the doctor has arrived, but Alma doesn’t want anyone to share in her nursing Reynolds. Cyril is adamant, and Dr. Robert Hardy (Brian Gleeson) enters to examine Reynolds. The doctor calls Alma Mrs. Woodcock, which Alma does not correct, liking that she would be considered in that esteemed role. Reynolds is rude (so what else is new?) and will not allow the doctor to examine him. He tells Alma to get rid of Hardy, showing he has given her primary control over him. Cyril tells the staff that they must get the dress ready to go to Belgium by the next morning, so the workers must work all night. While helping with the dress, Alma discovers and tears out one of Reynolds’s hidden items sewn in the dress. It is a note which reads, “Never cursed.” Perhaps Reynolds is saying that despite his circumscribed way of living, his mother didn’t put a curse on him to have to pursue his profession. But, the fact that he feels defensive about the possibility shows how he does think about leading a doomed life.
Reynolds wakes up and asks “Are you here? Are you always here?” as he stares at a chair and says he hears his mother’s voice. He says he wakes up from dreams crying when he hears her voice saying his name. We see a young woman in a wedding dress who is the apparition of his young mother. He says, “I miss you. I think about you all the time.” Alma comes in, but we still see his young mother in the corner just as Reynolds sees her. He goes downstairs in the morning and the dress is ready on the mannequin. He kisses Alma’s feet as she sleeps on the couch. After she wakes, he tells her he loves her and doesn’t want to be without her. He feels his mortality now after this illness and says he must do what he wants done sooner. He has made mistakes and repeated them and can’t ignore that anymore. He says he has to stop his “sour heart from choking.” He realizes his problems. He says he has been “cursed,” so he contradicts what he was fighting to ignore in the message. He says a house that doesn’t change is “a dead house.” He asks Alma to marry him. She hesitates for quite a while, probably intentionally torturing him for what he has put her through, but then smiles and says yes.

They do marry. But even though Reynolds looks happy briefly, when on vacation in the mountains, he looks annoyed as Alma makes noise slurping her breakfast cereal and buttering her toast. They run into Dr. Hardy at a dinner party, and Reynolds still acts rudely toward him. Dr. Hardy asks Alma at the dinner table what she is doing on New Year’s Eve. She says they will stay in, but he urges her to attend a ball since Hardy senses that Alma isn’t enjoying her life. Reynolds seems upset by Alma paying attention to the doctor. Almost as a form of childish revenge, he is disagreeable when playing backgammon, saying she is taking too long to tumble the dice, criticizing her mistakes, and condescendingly telling her she needs to be able to “count” to play the game. When she loses, he dismisses her, asking for another player. She is angry with him, and storms off. The aunt of the doctor says she is sorry for Reynolds being married to a “toddler.” It is an ironic statement, since it is Reynolds who does not act his age.
On New Year’s Eve, Alma says that they need to go dancing, and she wants to attend the ball suggested by the doctor. Reynolds refuses, and says he will be working. She leaves to go the party, probably feeling as if she is becoming a prisoner in Reynold’s isolated life. He sketches for a bit, but then leaves the house and goes to the boisterous ball. He looks for her from the balcony and sees her dancing with the crowd. He goes on the dance floor and finds her. We hear plaintive music, and he grabs her arm and drags her away. Although he treats her badly, he doesn’t want to be without her, but he wants her on his terms.

Back at work with the seamstresses, Reynolds is irritable, and walks away from his client who is trying on a dress. He confronts Cyril about why one of their long-time clients has not been around. She grudgingly informs him that the woman went to another designer for her dresses. Cyril says that the woman wanted something “chic.” Reynolds curses the word, and tells Cyril, “don’t you start using that filthy word.” He believes in using traditional styles, so despite his telling Alma he needs to change, he can’t. He says it hurts his feelings that the client went elsewhere, as if he has been betrayed. She says that she didn’t want to tell him, because now he is moaning, and she tells him nobody wants to be rejected, but his complaining “hurts my ears.” It’s like she is acting like a stern mother who is chastising a small child. Reynolds then states what is really bothering him. He says that his real problem is that he made “a mistake.” He lost his confidence, and can’t work, because Alma doesn’t fit in well in their house. He feels that she’s turned everything upside down. Again, Reynolds has trouble dealing with anyone that doesn’t play his “game,” as Alma put it. Alma entered the room and hears what Reynolds says about her. Alma says that Mrs. Vaughn, the client, is happy with the dress. Reynolds yells at her saying how he doesn’t care. He has no concern for how the horrible things he says affect her. When Cyril thanks her and Alma says you’re welcome, Reynolds sarcastically comments how polite the two are. He says there is an “an air of quiet death in this house, and I do not like the way it smells.” He earlier said that a house that does not change is a dead house. He now contradicts that statement.

Alma is cooking again, and we see her slicing the mushrooms. She cooks them in butter, which Reynolds dislikes, showing how she is doing it her, and not his, way. As she makes an omelet he sketches and reads. She serves him, as a mother feeds her child, and pours water in such a way as to make it sound very noisy, just to annoy him. He smells the food and then eats it while she looks on. He stares at her while he chews, but she told him earlier that he would lose in a staring contest with her, so we know he will lose that battle. She says, “I want you flat on your back, helpless, tender, with only me to help.” Then he’ll be strong again, she says. She tells him he might feel like he is going to die, but he won’t. Knowing that she is poisoning him, he tells her to kiss him before he becomes sick. She understands his mothering needs and how he must revert to being a helpless child who needs maternal care, because he can’t deal with the world as an adult. He says that they should call “that boy doctor” just in case. But, she says she will make him well again, and they declare their love for each other.
We find that she has been confessing all of this to the doctor. She says if Reynolds didn’t wake up from his illness, then he would be waiting for her in some afterlife, and all she would need is patience for her to get to him again. She now embodies his dead mother, a soul freed from earthly limits, so she can weave a “phantom thread” connecting herself to him. Alma then tells Reynolds that she can envision a future when there are large happy gatherings where friends and others gather. We see Alma with a baby carriage, while they take a walk as Cyril minds the baby. Alma sees herself dancing by themselves on that ballroom floor (so he can still enjoy some distance from others?). She tells Reynolds she sees herself as guardian of his dresses “keeping them from dust and ghosts and time.” There seems to be a desire for immortality through art, as he said to her earlier that he thought his life would be limitless. But, instead, he now wants to enjoy the present moment, and says that we are here right now and “I’m getting hungry.” We end with that equating of sex with food (which may be tainted with poison), as these two strange lovers continue their interesting and warped relationship.

The next film is Paths of Glory.