Contemporary Review / Review

Phantom Thread

by Jake Triola


With Phantom Thread, the newest film from writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, the filmmaker gives his audience an abundance of cinematic pleasures: suspense, romance, tension, mystery, beauty, and laughter. It’s a continuation of Anderson’s impressive oeuvre of eclectic works which seem completely different and undeniably congruous.

The movie introduces us to the House of Woodcock, its working girls, and its head, Reynolds Woodcock, brought entirely to life by Daniel Day-Lewis. A couturier at the height of his career in postwar London, he runs a tight schedule and, as a man who devotes his life to maintaining the excellence of his vocation, he is, by nature, a confirmed bachelor. As Woodcock himself puts it, he’s “incurable.” He confides only in his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), whose stoic disposition, at times, renders her seemingly inhuman. Their mother, who taught Reynolds the craft of dressmaking, haunts him, especially when he falls ill. So, here is a man surrounded by women. And by God, is his life dependent on them.

Despite the appeal of that which he misses out on, he accepts his own petulance as a curse. And then, a young hotel waiter by the name of Alma (Vicky Krieps) comes along. She quickly interrupts Woodcock’s routine and, because she knows nothing but the system he and his house have established, she intrigues him with the idea of life and work existing together in harmony. Krieps, a Luxembourger who’s made waves in recent European productions, is a triumph, and she bears the character of Alma as a gift to her audience. The fact that she upholds this while playing a deft balancing act with Daniel Day-Lewis is deeply commendable. Manville plays the same sort of game as Cyril whose piercing tongue never fails to humble Woodcock or any of his women; that is, once again, until Alma comes along.

Therein lies the beauty of Alma: she perseveres. She’s not like Woodcock’s other women, who tremble at the sparse but unforgiving words of his sister, who will bluntly proclaim “he likes a little belly.” And she certainly won’t be dismayed by Woodcock himself, who doesn’t hesitate to whisper a gentle reminder: “maybe you have no taste.” Words, especially those coming from someone who fears nothing but the loss of their own excellence, hurt. But the Woodcocks are transparent to Alma. She’s different because she’s not looking for a new dress. By the time she becomes accustomed to Reynolds, she’s not even looking to be loved. She’s looking, in truth, to love.

Phantom Thread is a rare modern example of a movie that’s truly cinematic—one that feels odd but never quirky, fresh but never fashionable, and sweet but never saccharine. It’s beautiful in its assembly, drawing from Anderson’s usual pool of late influences, including Stanley Kubrick and the recently-deceased Jonathan Demme, to whom the film is dedicated. But here, we find one of the few greats never before brought to the forefront of a Paul Thomas Anderson movie: Alfred Hitchcock. The film’s changing tones are as natural as Anderson’s ability to write believable characters, and, like any good Hitchcock movie, it’ll make you sit at the edge of your seat, captivated to the point of inescapable immersion, like a dream from which you cannot wake. It’ll also make you laugh out loud. And if the film’s thrilling contentedness doesn’t say enough about the abilities of those behind it, at several moments throughout, I didn’t know whether to cry because of fear or because of prodigious beauty. Anderson has already addressed his admiration for, specifically, Rebecca, and the masterpiece’s legacy can be detected through its characters as much as Goodfellas could be detected throughout Boogie Nights and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre could be detected throughout There Will Be Blood. In this case, 1950s Britain is depicted just as explicitly as the disturbed postwar America portrayed in The Master and the paranoid, post-hippy Los Angeles portrayed in Inherent Vice. Anderson remains a real thieving movie man, and it’s a delight to see him at a point in his career where he can create such tangible worlds—worlds that, without a trace of kitschy nostalgia, evoke another time.

Anderson’s chosen method of depiction, though impressive, is not that of the usual filmmaker. Indeed, he’s known for undertaking extensive research for the sake of accuracy. He doesn’t, however, make putting a specific London onscreen his main objective. Phantom Thread has no resemblance of an on-the-nose historical TV drama; nor is it a Charles James or Cristóbal Balenciaga biopic, as early rumors foretold. Anderson’s intent is not to build a world representative of reality. It’s far more simple. He just wants to tell a story.

It’s all strung together by its outstanding soundtrack, provided by regular Anderson collaborator Jonny Greenwood. Composed of elongated string flourishes and a muted, throbbing piano, the music is as English as it is weepingly vitalizing. Though Greenwood has scored every film of Anderson’s since There Will Be Blood, he works in an entirely different vein on Phantom Thread. Rather than peppering in jarringly anachronistic bursts as heard in previous films of their collaboration, instrumentation is ever-present. Because of it, the film, much like Punch- Drunk Love, flows like a piece of music itself.

I, for one, cannot help but grin at the thought that the character of Reynolds Woodcock is to be the last subject of Day-Lewis’ intensely selective and unanimously revered career. It’s an aching swan song: he partially wrote the character with friend Anderson at home in Ireland. He looks and sounds the closest thing to what is presumed to be his natural English form. Moreover, the film, though perhaps not Anderson’s or Day-Lewis’ opus, is certainly the most honest piece of work which either have created. Woodcock is, after all, simply a man consumed by his work. He makes the most of the extraordinary privilege in which he’s able to partake: creating art for a living.

Phantom Thread is, ultimately, a tale of love. It leaves a unique image of love—an image of dependency, fear, passion, and ambiguity. Love can strip us of all that we’ve built up around us, even when what we’ve built is a legacy altogether dignified and priceless.

5 out of 5 stars

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