US-based writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest period piece—set in 1950s London—offers the filmgoer so much that I have to rate it among the most generous movies I’ve ever seen. Phantom Thread is about an artist, his quirks, and his neediness, yes, but it’s also about a whole lot more.
On the surface, a successful and phenomenally fastidious fashion designer/dressmaker in London wakes up to find his soon-to-be-former love relationship has become shapeless and threadbare. His business manager/sister/co-cynic “Cyril” (Lesley Manville, a powerhouse) suggests he take a day off in the country, wherein he meets a waitress of considerable clumsy charm.
The auteur Anderson adopts a measure of the main character’s perfectionism, and all these proceedings look exquisite. His trademark, carefully considered camera movements, in these opulent settings, exhilarate on their own. Add to that the deeply inspired, richly layered story; lively, often hilarious characters; and Jonny Greenwood’s lavish, jazz-and-classical-inflected score, and Phantom Thread becomes a ravishing model of haute couture cinema. Especially in the opening sequences, the old-Hollywood feel permeates. The fabric of this instant classic is shot through with filaments from The Lady Eve (1941) and Roman Holiday (1953).
Though Anderson has expressed his admiration for certain “90-minute romantic comedies” (see his homage to them in Punch-Drunk Love ), Phantom Thread is not exactly that. For starters, it’s not one second too long at 130 minutes. The laughs come unexpectedly and steadily, though effortlessly. The writer fashions art out of dialogue, and here his punk rock ethic contrasts well with the formal, olde-style English verbiage of Hitchcock, say. From your seat in the house, you’ll notice the laughter emerges in pockets and sprinklings, refreshingly, instead of in the unanimous roars of ordinary comedy fare.
As much as Daniel Day-Lewis perfectly astounds in his masterful performance, the venerable actor is also the consummate team player. The fruits of his openness to what his fellow actors are doing and to the purpose and effect of each scene are palatable on the screen—deliciously so. The chemical reactions between his “Reynolds Woodcock” (Anderson credits Day-Lewis’ and his sense of humor for the character’s name) and love-interest “Alma” cause simmering, smoldering, and surging. Vicky Krieps, an intriguing, magnificent actress from Luxembourg, brings to Alma subtlety, humor, and surprising powers that are crucial for Woodcock’s muse and occasional foil.
The director wisely intuited the importance of their chemistry in fully fleshing out his enthralling tale. He knew the breadth, height, and depth of Day-Lewis’ onscreen presence and his counterpart had to be unflinching. Krieps’ Alma barely blinks at Woodcock’s bluster, and when she does it signals a confident potency of her own.
The results of their emotional dueling are dual: first, a grand, finely tuned examination of power dynamics in romantic relationships; second, a tension necessary to the film’s conflicts and suspense. For his multi-faceted master-craftsmanship, Anderson is rewarded with a hauntingly beautiful film which also works as a love/hate yarn for the ages.
The writer/director has long been at, or close to, the top of the list of American, world-class filmmakers, so one must look at his films as parts of his canon, too. In the more serious aspects of Phantom Thread, Anderson considers the legacies of deceased parents, continuing his long-running exploration of difficult parent-child relationships. His interest in this area is so strong and complex that it has informed every single one of his eight narrative films, and there’s no reason to expect he’ll ever eschew such themes. Parent issues, especially paternal—though in this work he takes a decidedly maternal tack—seem built into his creative life. Anderson’s visiting and revisiting family problems afford his films cores of timeless truth and scenes of devastating passion.
He seems obsessed with—young or adult—children confronting their living-but-absent, dying, and even dead parents to express their deepest-seated emotions—often rage, but sometimes adoration and yearning. It’s as if Anderson himself is seeking an answer through his art and, as his partners in crime, we benefit also, from the films’ effective thought provocations and spine-tingling disturbances.
A New Year’s Eve party scene here recalls not only The Godfather Part II (1974), but Anderson’s own Boogie Nights (1997). The director loves the symbolism of the boisterous countdown and the enthusiasm and romantic idealism of the partygoers. But especially the visceral angst of the forlorn and lonely in the midst of bubbly, magical optimism. Visually thrilling and evoking a lover’s yearning to physically and emotionally find their straying partner, the scene feels like a classic to be enjoyed over and over, and indeed so does the whole of Phantom Thread, in the final analysis. Anderson fans will also be tickled by Day-Lewis briefly channeling William H. Macy’s “Little Bill” in the parallel Boogie Nights New Year’s Eve party scene.
5 of 5 stars