Mrs. Harris, Mrs. ‘Arris, and Their Trips to Paris

Even as someone who’s only casually familiar with Angela Lansbury’s career, I was saddened to hear of her recent passing.  I’ve never successfully watched an entire episode of Murder, She Wrote without drifting off to sleep or off to another channel; the most experience I have with her prestigious singing career is hearing her voice a cartoon teapot; and yet the TV interview clips memorializing Lansbury on local news broadcasts last week had me instantly crying for reasons I can’t fully articulate.  She just seemed like such a kind, thoughtful, talented person that the world was lucky to have around – a very particular, gentle flavor of sweet that’s been draining from our cultural palate.  Online posthumous praise for Lansbury has also helped me see new, nuanced shades to her persona, since I had only previously seen her typecast as a lovely old biddy for all of my life.  Between reading John Waters’s real-life anecdote of bumping into Lansbury at an NYC fetish club to watching her bratty debut in Gaslight and listening to her get gruesome in Sweeney Todd, I now have a better rounded appreciation of who she was a person & a performer; and I feel like crying all over again.

Getting acquainted with the tougher, saucier side of Angela Lansbury has only enhanced my appreciation of her frothier performances as well.  I’m particularly thinking of her turn as the Cockney-accented Mrs. ‘Arris in the 1992 made-for-television adaptation of Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, a novel that was adapted again for a much lusher production this year.  The 2022 version of Mrs. Harris is played by Lesley Manville, who I’m used to seeing as a heartless hardass in projects like Harlots & Phantom Thread.  She’s a big-ol’ softie in her new starring vehicle, though, leaving all of the ice-queen viciousness to her villainous co-star Isabelle Huppert.  Manville delivers the exact sugary sweet, kill-em-with-kindness defiance you’d expect from Lansbury in the role, playing Mrs. Harris as a human doormat who gradually learns to stand up for herself without ever stooping to the cruelty of the world she seeks to change.  What’s hilarious is that Lansbury’s Mrs. ‘Arris is a much tougher customer.  You get the sense that she could easily drink & swear Manville’s Harris under the table, tinging the role with a touch of the Cockney sass that kickstarted her career as a teenager in Gaslight.  She’s still a total sweetheart, but there’s a sharpened edge to her character that’s missing from the newer, higher profile adaptation.

While Lansbury got to play Mrs. ‘Arris with a little grit & gristle (reflected right there in the accented title), Manville got to be in the better movie.  Both adaptations maintain the novel’s basic premise that a kindly British housekeeper splurges her life savings on a couture Dior gown in Paris, much to the frustration of couture’s snootiest gatekeepers.  That premise is just all there is to the made-for-TV version, which wouldn’t be much of a movie without Lansbury’s loveable screen-presence babysitting the audience between commercial breaks.  Meanwhile, Manville’s Mrs. Harris essentially becomes a union organizer—inspired by an ongoing trash strike that’s only mentioned as a traffic obstacle in the Lansbury version—radicalizing both the workers at Dior and herself.  Both versions of Mrs. Harris are lauded for being kind in a cruel world, but only Manville gets to learn to prioritize herself in the face of oppressive class & gender politics; she’s in a drama, while Lansbury is in a sitcom.  The most telling difference between the two films is when a Parisian love interest warmly refers to Mrs. Harris as “Mrs. Mops” in honor of the maid that cleaned his room at British boarding school.  In the made-for-TV version, it’s played as a sweet gesture; in the theatrical version it breaks her heart, and you desperately want to see her punch the cad’s throat.

I don’t want to exalt the 2022 version of Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris as some high standard of artful cinema that the made-for-TV version can’t live up to.  Both adaptations are the exact kind of passive British entertainment meant to be enjoyed under a giant blanket with an empty mind & a nice cuppa.  Only the theatrical version has a true emotional hook to it, though.  When Mrs. Harris inevitably gets the pretty dress she wants, the movie just works on a level that the 90s one can’t – joining “Paddington wishes Aunt Lucy a happy birthday” and “The Girlhood girls dance to Rhianna” on the list of scenes I can think back to when I need a quick cry.  Lansbury doesn’t need a good movie to hit that emotional trigger, though.  I can apparently watch 30 seconds of her doing a press junket interview with Entertainment Tonight and well up with tears in the same way.  Her Mrs. Harris movie didn’t need to be especially “good” to be worthwhile; her sweet-but-secretly-tough presence was enough.  All that said, there’s a much wider, brighter world of Lansbury projects out there I should have prioritized before watching her pretty-dress movie, especially now that I have a better handle on who she was.  And maybe I should start with forcing myself to fall in love with detective-novelist Jessica Fletcher, who was likely an even tougher customer than Mrs. ‘Arris; I just have to stay awake long enough to get to know her.

-Brandon Ledet

Phantom Thread (2017)

Because of his reputation as a formalist & a high-brow intellect, people often overlook a very important aspect of Paul Thomas Anderson’s work, even when heaping on praise: he’s damn funny. This may be because the humor in PTA’s movies is usually coated with a thick grime of terrifying, soul-destroying bitterness. For instance, it’s difficult to describe the humor of Daniel Day-Lewis threatening to slit a stranger’s throat in There Will be Blood or Phillip Seymour Hoffman shouting “pig-Fuck!” in The Master, but those moments are indeed amusingly intense. Anderson’s latest, Phantom Thread, is a wonderful feature-length continuation of this tradition. It may take audiences a few minutes to defrost from the expectation of watching an Important, Oscar-Worthy Drama to realize it, but Phantom Thread really is a wickedly funny movie, the perfect encapsulation of PTA’s bitter, hubristic humor. Detailing the power dynamics of a dangerously tense long-term relationship between a 1950s Londoner dressmaker and his waitress-turned-muse, you might be tempted to assume the film is a tragically dour period piece with little patience for silliness. Instead, Daniel Day-Lewis & relative newcomer Vicky Krieps verbally spar in a nonstop comedic assault for the full two-hour runtime. The film still excels as a gorgeous, meticulously crafted period piece with dead serious things to say about power dynamic struggles in artist-muse romantic relationships; it just does so while making you laugh in wholly unexpected ways at every twisted turn in its intimate, absurdly well-mannered narrative. Paul Thomas Anderson has certainly been funny before, but never at this duration or consistency.

Reynolds Woodcock is sure to be remembered as one of the greater, more intense characters ever performed onscreen, a name as iconic as Norman Bates or Rupert Pupkin or, appropriately enough, Daniel Plainview. Daniel Day-Lewis plays the renowned dressmaker with the delicate, careful darkness of Werner Herzog’s speaking voice. Having let the praise for his (admittedly gorgeous) dress designs go to his head, Woodcock has devolved into an insufferable twerp who demands that the army of women who actually put in the labor to make his business functional (including a rotating cast of muses-du-jour) bend to his every whim at a moment’s notice. Phantom Thread flirts with the thematic possibilities of championing the unnoticed work of the women whom Woodcock steamrolls or parsing out exactly what he means when he describes himself as an “incurable confirmed bachelor.” Mostly, though, it just has a quiet laugh at the tension his function as a tyrannical drama queen generates in a house of women who do not have the power to tell him “No.” This dynamic shifts when his latest muse, Alma (Krieps), refuses to be steamrolled along with the rest and defiantly intends to treat Woodcock like the “spoiled little baby” he truly is. From then on, the movie details a three-way power struggle within the Woodcock household (Lesley Manville holds down the third corner as Reynold’s deliciously icy sister, Cyril), with everyone involved seemingly getting perverted pleasure out of the clash, regardless of their overly dramatic complaints. Despite his delicate, mannered exterior, Woodcock drives, eats, and structures his romances like a thrill-seeking maniac. It turns out he enjoys having his hubristic displays of power challenged, though, something no woman in his life had ever dared to do before Alma (besides his cutthroat, no-bullshit sister). Through that challenge they build a curiously violent, deceptively well-balanced life together.

You may be able to find a better version of this kind of tragically classy romance in an Alfred Hitchcock or Douglas Sirk picture. The Love Witch may be a flashier attempt at a playfully fashionable period pastiche with strong feminist themes. mother! may offer a more convincingly absurdist critique of artist-muse relationship dynamics. The Duke of Burgundy may be a more immersively gorgeous, cheekily fun examination of power struggles in a kinkily-mannered long-term romance. What Phantom Thread offers that resists comparison to other works is a very particular sense of humor distinct to Anderson’s collaborative energy with Day-Lewis. It’s difficult to describe why Woodcock peering menacingly over his glasses or the way PTA substitutes food for sex in this picture are so wickedly amusing; I actually suspect a lot of people won’t see it that way at all, given the subjective nature of humor. If you enter Phantom Thread looking for a modernist critique of the tyrannical Troubled Artist type set against a visually interesting backdrop & a sweeping, classy score (from fellow frequent PTA collaborator & Radiohead vet Jonny Greenwood), the movie is more than happy to oblige you. If you’re not laughing through the tension of the weaponized “polite” exchanges between Reynolds, Alma, and Cyril Woodcock, though, I’m not sure you’re fully appreciating what the movie is offering. This really is one of the finest comedies I’ve seen in a while. It has a wickedly peculiar, distinct sense of humor to it that you won’t find in many other features, a comedic tone Reynolds himself would likely describe as “a little naughty.” Just pray you don’t find yourself in a dead silent audience of intellectuals hellbent on taking every detail of that naughtiness seriously.

-Branodn Ledet

Rupture (2017)

I had a difficult time fully understanding what more enthusiastic fans saw in the recent horror cheapie The Void (besides its incredible special effects craft), but I think I found my ideal version of that film’s aesthetic in Rupture. Like with The Void, there’s nothing in Rupture that hasn’t technically been pulled off better, both artistically & financially, in higher profile films that arrived before it. Specifically, Rupture film feels like a mashup of Martyrs & A Cure for Wellness, except boiled down to the production values of a late 90s episode of Outer Limits. Despite its inherent cheapness (or maybe because of it, knowing me) and its The Void level of objectively terrible acting & dialogue, I was wholly won over by Rupture as a low-key VOD horror charmer. It’s an efficient little slice of modern schlock that deliberately bites off more than it can chew thematically, but easily gets by on both visual style and the over-the-top absurdity of its basic premise.

Noomi Rapace (of Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, sorta) stars as a tough-skinned, fiercely independent single mom struggling to navigate the frustrated anger of the two men in her life: her teenage son and her ex-husband. After dropping off her son with his dad for the weekend, she is promptly abducted by a mysterious organization that tackles, tases, duct tapes, and handcuffs her into compliance. As she works on escaping and uncovering the identities of her captors, Rupture threatens to devolve into an array of genres that have already been exploited to death: abduction thrillers, Women in Captivity horror, torture porn, etc. Thankfully, it reaches for much more deliriously pulpy territory. Rupture is not traditional torture porn so much as psychological torture porn. As our hero & her fellow abductees are tormented with their greatest fears (heights, snakes, spiders, etc.), the film feels like a dirt cheap mockbuster version of Martyrs, where the next step of human evolution can be unlocked by science & fear. Rupture‘s genre film thrills are fortunately a lot less brutal & less gendered than they are in Martyrs, however, keeping the mood consistently light and enjoyably bizarre.

Director Steven Shainberg, who also helmed the BDSM cult classic Secretary, crafts a slick schlock aesthetic here, framing the film with a ludicrous comic book eye, as if it were a sequel to Sam Raimi’s Darkman. Giant syringes full of florescent liquid & futuristic Science Goggles™ recall 1950s B-pictures and the 1980s horrors that payed homage to them. Not all of Rupture is light, trashy, fun. I cringed through a few of Noomi Rapace’s awkwardly​ delivered interactions with her fellow captives, but the mysterious organization who tortures them for a triggered evolution is bursting with excellent performances from skilled character actors. Michael Chiklis, Peter Stormare, and Lesley Manville (who was a villainous joy on the first season of Harlots) are all effectively creepy as Rapace’s tormentors while still aligning their performances with the film’s overarching cheapness. I got genuine chills and light-hearted giggles when these villains would tenderly stroke Rapace’s cheek and mutter tenderly, “Interesting skin,” between experiments/torture sessions. It took me back to the old tonal victories in horror cheapies like Tobe Hooper’s Invaders from Mars, a deceptively difficult balance to strike between genuine terror & comic book absurdity.

I can’t tell you exactly why I was totally on-board with the horror film nostalgia of Rupture (and, looking further back, Clown) while the similar thrills of The Void left me largely cold. Maybe it’s because the mood was lighter. Maybe I’m that much of a sucker for intense horror movie lighting and was easily won over by Shainberg’s use of colorful reds, blues, and yellows, which gave the film the sheen of a forgotten Creepshow segment. Maybe I’m just a sucker for Shainberg’s eye in general. There’s no accounting for taste, really. The dialogue & acting in Rupture are just as awkwardly weak as they are in The Void, but they did little to sour my enjoyment of the film as a bargain bin mashup of A Cure for Wellness & Martyrs. The film is too much of a trashy delight to be sunk by something as trivial as subpar character work or embarrassing line deliveries. Those faults rarely ruined our appreciation of the 80s & 90s VHS horrors or the 1950s horror comics the film tonally resembles either, so there’s really no reason to let them get in the way now.

-Brandon Ledet