Phantom Thread

phantom_thread_ver2STARS3.5Ever since actor Daniel Day-Lewis revealed that Phantom Thread would be his last movie, the announcement has cast a shadow over every discussion of the film. Yet this production is notable in other ways. Phantom Thread is an odd — no make that bizarre — chronicle. On the surface, it would seem to be a costumed period piece about a fashion designer in glamorous 1950s London. It is that at first glance. The narrative concerns one fictional Reynolds Jeremiah Woodcock celebrated dressmaker to British high society. Yes, that is indeed his name, the first of many affectations that occasionally push this serious period drama into comedy on more than a few occasions.

Reynolds is a confirmed bachelor by his own admission. Yet a series of young women have always influenced his work as a means to provide inspiration and companionship. They are ever changing. Each one occupying the sole muse in his life until he tires of them when they subsist to become useful. Overseeing this behavior and career is his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville). She is his business partner and equal. She forges a co-dependent relationship with her brother. Cyril is rather dictatorial herself. Her severe appearance and icy demeanor belie her personality. For a while, it’s about them. That all changes when Alma (Vicky Krieps), a young woman working as a waitress, enters his world. She is a clumsy, seemingly reticent soul. He is a grand couturier to the wealthy elite. It is at that moment that Phantom Thread assumes its proper direction as a tale about two oddballs in love.

Phantom Thread is a meticulously manicured production featuring a lush score by Jonny Greenwood and stylish cinematography that goes uncredited. Director Paul Thomas Anderson insists it was a collaborative effort and not attributable to any one person. Haute couture fashions (Mark Bridges) and lush production design (Mark Tildesley, Véronique Melery) unite to create a vision befitting of its subject. This fastidiously behaved fashion designer cuts, drapes, and sews with the precision of a master as he crafts his latest collection. The last time Daniel Day-Lewis acted in a film helmed by Anderson (There Will Be Blood), the actor won an Oscar. It’s a pretty safe bet that he’ll get another nomination for his work here. As the domineering Reynolds, the method actor inhabits the role with unswerving intensity. He is a creature of strict routine that views even the slightest aberration to his daily habits as an affront to his very being. He is clearly in charge as he commands a large staff that answer to his every whim. Spontaneity and surprise are his very enemy. It is often at the breakfast table that these interactions are highlighted. Alma scrapes butter across her toast and pours tea from a high altitude. The liquid hits the cup with such noisy gusto. I suspect the sound designer helped out a little because the sounds are humorously loud. It unnerves him. He worships order as if it were a religion and he makes demands upon Alma and his sister Cyril like a disciplinarian.

Simply put, Reynolds is a control freak. The mere utterance of the word “chic” sends him into a conniption fit. Given its portrayal of the way oppressive qualities can affect a marriage, I was reminded of Mother!, Darren Aronofsky’s fable of psychological horror that came out in September. In contrast, Alma is more of a match to her husband’s overbearing behavior. It’s clear he doesn’t appreciate change. His sister Cyril understands this. Alma recognizes this as well. At one key juncture, she intends to dismiss the staff and surprise him with a home-cooked meal. When she first informs Cyril of her intention, his sister vehemently advises against it. When Alma disregards her advice, the ostensibly benevolent gesture becomes like a concerted intervention carefully designed to upset him. It won’t be the last time she finds a way to assert power in their relationship.

Phantom Thread has director Paul Thomas Anderson embracing romance but from his own decidedly unique perspective. For a while, it is unclear as to where the auteur is going with all this. At first, it appears that the screenplay, also penned by the filmmaker, will detail the portrait of a domineering male genius. Then he subverts our expectations as the situation gradually changes. The account can get a bit taxing at times. The self-consciously fanatical devotion to minutiae requires a leisurely pace. His attention to style can get a bit tedious. It could’ve gone south at any point, but it never did. I was captivated throughout by this obsessive courtship between two souls in love. It’s also underscored by a subversive wit with touches of humor that are so peculiar as to be laugh out loud funny at times. This is intentional I am sure. I had cooled on Anderson’s work as of late. It has been a decade since There Will Be Blood, the last movie of his I truly adored. Both The Master and Inherent Vice have their ardent fans, although I don’t count myself among them. I enjoyed this though. It all culminates in an ending that perfectly crystallizes their marriage. It involves submission and the willingness to compromise. It’s disturbing to ponder and yet it all makes perfect sense. These two people were truly meant for each other. I guess that’s love.



13 Responses to “Phantom Thread”

  1. smilingldsgirl Says:

    It was well made but I didn’t love it. They were both so unlikable and I never felt any emotion in their story. But it was pretty and well acted so there’s that

    • He was unlikeable sure but those brilliant artistic types usually are. 😉 I enjoyed the way the script confounded my expectations. Alma was a fascinating character.

      • smilingldsgirl Says:

        I can see that. She was more frustrating to me than fascinating. I didn’t hate the movie because of the acting and other production values but it’s not anything I’d want to see again or really enjoyed

      • I thought she became very empowered. How was she frustrating?

      • smilingldsgirl Says:

        I felt her character was a bit inconsistent. One minute she was sheepish and shy and the next she’s like a Lady Macbeth type. I just didn’t bond with her or find her moving or interesting. She didn’t seem empowered to me. They had a very weird marriage so I guess there is that but the film didn’t explore that weirdness in a compelling way for me. It looked beautiful and I think the actors did a good job with what they were given but I just didn’t love it

      • Interesting. I never felt like she was sheepish and shy. When Reynolds first meets her working in the restaurant it’s true she trips. She is clumsy and seemingly unsure, but we slowly learn that is not her true personality. Was she pretending? Possibly. She asserts herself at every step of the way in that relationship. Time and time again it is revealed that she has the upper hand. The masterful way in which she affirms that authority is so skillful in its subtlety.

      • smilingldsgirl Says:

        Shrug. I didn’t feel that way

  2. The narrative certainly didn’t hook me but the characters, dialogue, and direction did. Strong way for DDL to go out.

    • The story certainly isn’t plot-driven. It’s a tale of obsession, manipulation, and control. They all play a part in a curious relationship where the yin and yang of two people complement each other.

  3. Im so thrilled that this movie received multiple Oscar nominations. A lot of great acting, beautiful costumes and clever back and forth verbal banter. I understood this crazy relationship. Kept me intrigued. 3 1/2 stars

    • Six Oscar noms to be exact: Picture, Director (Paul Thomas Anderson), Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis), Supporting Actress (Lesley Manville), Costume Design & Original Score.

      It has a good chance of actually winning Costume Design, although Beauty and the Beast is a strong contender as well.

  4. This is a standout film for me; if it had 30 minutes edited out from the over-long 2 hours 10 minutes it would have been perfect. Top filming, acting, and suspensful romance with a weird twisty ending had me enthralled.

    • The more I think about it, the more I appreciate it too. Nice to see it get 6 Oscar nominations. KInd of a surprise. I guess they released it at just the right time.

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