Note: this Phantom Thread review will remain as spoiler-free as humanly possible, because to give away this film’s secrets would be a crime.
Mere words can not entirely prepare you for Phantom Thread. How does one even begin to describe the latest cinematic treat from Paul Thomas Anderson? Certainly not by comparing it to previous Anderson films before. For while Anderson has reunited with his There Will Be Blood star Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread is far removed from that film. It’s far removed from practically any Anderson film before it. I dare say that if you showed it to someone who didn’t realize Anderson was the director, they’d have trouble believing that he was behind the camera.
With Phantom Thread, Anderson has crafted a delirious, lush, hypnotic, pitch-black comedy; a film that serves as a rebuttal for the prototypical “miserable artist who gets away with treating others like crap because he’s so talented” trope. Here is an intricate, sly, deceptive film, and what a glorious film it is.
In 1950s London, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his renowned House of Woodcock provide elegant, flowing fashions for the upper crust, royalty included. Woodcock is a meticulous man; a man of routine, who insists on total silence during breakfast or else his entire creative day will be ruined. As the film begins, Reynolds has clearly grown tired of his significant other, and entrusts his ever-present sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) with sending the young lady packing.
But as quickly as Reynolds frees himself from one romantic partner, he’s soon wooing another. He’s smitten with waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps), and asks her to dinner. Their first date does not go as Alma planned: Reynolds clearly lacks what we’d call “people skills,” and behaves in a strange, detached, but intense way all through the night. The night concludes back at Reynolds’ sprawling home, but rather than ending up in bed together, Alma instead ends up on display as Reynolds measures her for a dress. To Reynolds, Alma isn’t just a potential lover – she’s potential property, a living doll that he can dress as he sees fit. He wipes the lipstick from her face, saying, “I like to see who I’m talking to.” While measuring her, he bluntly states, “You have no breasts.” Embarrassed, Alma apologizes, but Reynolds is quick to assure her it’s fine, ominously stating, “It’s my job to give you some…if I want to.”
This sets the stage for a film about an abusive, domineering man trying to force a fragile woman to submit to his will. But that’s not what Phantom Thread is really about. This film is like an ever-changing puzzle box; just when you think you’ve cracked the code, it reveals a new section you weren’t even aware of. The trailer for Phantom Thread plays a part in this deliberate deception – judging by the footage made available, Phantom Thread looks to be a stuffy, somber costume drama. Instead, what Anderson has created is a gothic, somewhat perverse romantic comedy; a film with more laugh-out-loud moments than most traditional comedies released this year. But the humor is so dry, so subtle, that I wouldn’t be surprised if more than half the audience misses it completely. However, those who are in tune with the film’s off-beat, frequently dark sensibilities will find themselves howling as Day-Lewis shoots Krieps loaded glances as she loudly scrapes butter across a piece of toast.
Daniel Day-Lewis is set to retire after this film, or so he claims. If true, it will be a great loss to film, but what a performance to go out on. Reynolds Woodcock is far removed from Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview, but still burns with that same intensity. Yet there’s also a fragility present that was void in Plainview; a helplessness that rears itself in the face of petty annoyances. For all his artistic intensity, Reynolds is not a man who handles stress well, and much of Day-Lewis’ performance is focused on crafting Reynolds’ crumbling interior.
As remarkable as Day-Lewis is here, Phantom Thread really belongs to Vicky Krieps as Alma. Krieps is a revelation here, keeping much of Alma’s internal workings a secret from the audience. The first half of Phantom Thread is spent trying to decipher just what kind of individual Alma is, and one of the joys of the film is watching Krieps’ performance evolve and shift as the narrative expands. As the film unfolds, the dynamic and romantic relationship between Reynolds and Alma goes down unexpected paths, and just when you think you have it stitched up, a tear in the fabric appears, revealing something surprising underneath. In some ways, what Anderson’s script is doing here is similar to what Darren Aronofsky’s script for mother! was attempting: a story about a cold, controlling artist and the power-dynamic relationship he has with his long-suffering romantic partner. But Anderson’s film isn’t as off-the-wall as mother!, but it does have its own twisted secrets up its sleeve.
The third piece of the puzzle is Lesley Manville as Reynolds’ no nonsense sister Cyril. The relationship between the siblings is unconventional, to say the least, and Manville does so much with so little – one silent, withering glare from her is enough to steal an entire scene. When Phantom Thread begins, there’s a sense that Cyril is this film’s stand-in for Rebecca’s Mrs. Danvers: the always present, always watchful, possibly dangerous lady of the house pulling the strings. Yet that’s not quite right. Instead, Cyril is the one woman in Reynolds’ life who understands his temperament. She’s Reynolds’ fixer – the one who bails him out of a sticky situation when he’s too flustered to handle it himself.
Anderson directs all of this with painterly precision. Just as the narrative here is unlike any of his previous films, so too is the very look of the film. Anderson made a few headlines when word broke that he wasn’t working with a traditional cinematographer for Phantom Thread, and rather handling most of those duties himself, with some assistance from gaffer Michael Bauman, camera operator Colin Anderson, first assistant cameraman Erik Brown and grip Jeff Kunkel. The end result is nevertheless stunning – the film is bathed in a dreamy sort of haze, filled with natural light, all the better to show off the cavalcade of dresses Reynolds designs.
All of this – Anderson’s direction, the lush look of the film, the stellar performances – are underlined by Jonny Greenwood’s gorgeous, lovely score, one of the best soundtracks of the year. Greenwood has become the John Williams to Anderson’s Steven Spielberg. Just as several of Spielberg’s films would lack a powerful punch without Williams’ iconic scores, so, too, would several of Anderson’s films, particularly this one, which uses its music as a pulse.
Phantom Thread is a niche film for Anderson. It doesn’t fit neatly into any specific category, and it lacks the more mainstream appeal of something like Boogie Nights. Yet it’s one of the finest films he’s ever made, and one of the best of the year. Like the flowing gowns, ruffled capes and high-collared necklines that Reynolds obsessively crafts, it’s a true sight to behold. It will leave you stunned, but don’t be shocked if you find yourself grinning as you leave the theater.
/Film Rating: 9 out of 10
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