December 7, 2017
‘Phantom Thread’: You’ll Want To Live Inside Paul Thomas Anderson’s Masterful Film [Review]
It’s fitting that Paul Thomas Anderson, a filmmaker known for fastidious craftsmanship, decided to make a movie about a fastidious craftsman. It’s true that Anderson has compared his new film “Phantom Thread” to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca”; it’s also true that the comparison clicks. But “Phantom Thread” has just as much in common with “Rebecca” as with Jacques Rivette’s recently restored “La Belle Noiseuse,” a movie dedicated to the painstaking process of creating art. In that film, we watch a painter set about making a masterpiece in long, interrupted takes of sketches and brushstrokes. In “Phantom Thread,” we see tailors commit to sewing dresses with unwavering focus plus laser precision.
Granted, “Phantom Thread” is only two hours long and doesn’t demand that its star, Daniel Day-Lewis, and its subsidiary cast sew for ten to twenty minutes at a time (though given more time and instruction, Day-Lewis, ever ready to throw himself mind, body, and soul into his roles, likely would have been game to try). Anderson’s respect for the art of tailoring is clearly felt, but it’s also a secondary pursuit to the film’s central thrust, being the relationship between esteemed, perfectionist dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) and Alma (Vicky Krieps), a comely waitress he meets and is immediately transfixed by over breakfast. She becomes his muse-cum-paramour, the latest, it seems, in a line of muse-cum-paramours; Reynolds is a Great Man™, and as a Great Man™, he tends not to keep his lovers around for longer than he has use for them.
The plot commences in earnest as Alma emerges, surprisingly, as its lead; Anderson couches his narrative in Alma’s experience as her relationship with Reynolds grows and as she learns to navigate both the couture world he holds court over and his relationship with his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville). “Phantom Thread” belongs to Alma. It even opens on her narration as she recounts her time with Reynolds by fireside. Rather than make a standard issue Great Man™ film, Anderson has chosen to make that film from the perspective of an observer. Alma’s viewpoint throws definitions of greatness into sharp relief: it’s easy to paint men like Reynolds merely as monsters, but “Phantom Thread” suggests that he’s more of a child.
Reynolds doesn’t like confrontations in the morning. He doesn’t like too much noise over breakfast, his definition of “too much noise” being “anything over a whisper.” He is specific about how he likes his asparagus cooked, to the point of expressing contempt for the poor sap who cooks it incorrectly. Most of all he’s covetous of his work, but when you’re an intercontinentally renowned clothier who produces garments for royalty, celebrities, socialites and debutantes, perhaps you’re allowed to be covetous. One of his clients, generously described as a hot mess, falls asleep in the dress he provides her; her careless audacity enrages him so that he breaks into her hotel suite, Alma in tow, and has her undress the client as she lies prone on her bed. Anderson captures the scene through a darkly comic lens, seeking our chuckles in reply to Reynolds’ punctiliousness. In fairness, he’s quite laughable.
But “Phantom Thread” is no laughing matter regardless of how much humor Anderson weaves into his script. Manville in particular steals the show; she sips tea as she drops the most British of shade, as if to spit her venom into her cup before drinking it back down. She’s a hoot to watch. And Day-Lewis gets choice one-liners, too, about the naughtiness of having cream in one’s kitchen. They’re a delightfully cheeky pair, but Alma struggles to participate and to fit in. She’s ever at the edge of interplay, distanced, struggling to win Reynolds’ attention and Cyril’s approval. For all its particularities of time, place, and discipline, “Phantom Thread” is ultimately a movie about aching and longing for human validation and affection. (It’s also, like “Rebecca,” a movie about living in the shadow of the dead.) We hope for a moment where Reynolds comes to his senses and stops acting like a spoiled brat long enough to give Alma the love she craves.
Do we ever get that moment? On occasion, yes. Does the moment ever last? That’s for the viewer to decide, though it’s worth noting upfront that Reynolds’ romance with Alma is akin to a rollercoaster. But Anderson keeps “Phantom Thread” on a steady track by dint of his filmmaking, which, now eight features into his career, continues not only to improve but to evolve. Anderson’s movies grow less flashy and more subtle as you trace the arc of his growth as a director; currently he’s in a period of subtlety and delicacy, working with such a deliberate hand on his movies that you may not notice him in the frame at all. (The rare times that you do, you only notice his fascination with the details and procedures of dressmaking; the film is not an ode, or an homage, but rather a work of curiosity in action that spurs our own curiosity for the tailor’s trade.) His unobtrusive aesthetic, calibrated to highlight his actors and, of course, the fashion, belies its deceptive luxuriousness. This is a movie you’ll want to live in for the pure joy of reveling in Anderson’s effortless mastery.
Oh, and Day-Lewis is pretty good too. It’s odd to think that as much as he dominates the film, he is only its subject rather than its star. But this is appropriate. Reynolds is a dominant personality; it’s natural that this should extend to the focus Anderson accords Day-Lewis over the course of the film’s running time. Through Day-Lewis, we see Reynolds as exacting, demanding, brusque to the point of cruelty, and occasionally just plain old cruel, sans pretense. We also see him as Alma sees him, even when Krieps isn’t speaking in voiceover. Her eyes tell us everything. He’s the object of her possibly ill-placed adoration, a man haunted both literally and figuratively by the ghost of his mother, whose passing has left a void in him that none can fill. Alma tries, though. Lord, does she try.
In trying, she establishes her own dominance over Reynolds, who we learn is also subject to the dominance of Cybil, creating a domino effect that allows Anderson to subvert the Great Man™ trope of “Phantom Thread.” Speaking more of that subversion gives away its best invention, found in the climax. Put simply, Alma and Cyril meet Reynolds’ selfishness with rebukes equally as harsh as they are fundamentally loving. You might not recognize the love driving “Phantom Thread” forward as love, per se, but you will understand that love is expressed in so many ways, in so many forms, whether through meticulous construction or through the preparation of dinner. Love is patient, love is kind; love is haunting, and occasionally crazy. [A+]