Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Since his 1996 debut Hard Eight, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson has accumulated the status of wunderkind sensation, especially following 1997's critical smash Boogie Nights and 1999's sprawling yet divisive Magnolia. Since then, he's settled into the rarefied category of genius auteur with a series of films (Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, The Master, Inherent Vice) that, to varying degrees, have become part of the cinematic canon. As one of his generation's most consistent directors, his filmography has spurned the kind of mythic discussion usually reserved for reclusive foreign filmmakers. However, especially in interviews, Anderson comes across like a Southern California Valley native who loves movies of all stripes (he has a soft spot for SNL alums, including Adam Sandler) rather than the serious-minded artist one would expect. With his latest work, Phantom Thread, he's crafted perhaps his most mature film; by turns haunting, strange, gorgeous, funny, and perverse.
There's a single image that occurs near the end of Anderson's lavish yet intimate period piece that encapsulates the entire experience. Reynolds Woodcock, the dressmaker in 1950s London played by Daniel-Day Lewis, is intricately sewing a dress, and Anderson gives us a brief insert shot of his gnarled fingers. This image--of the toll a control freak getting down and dirty with his craft has on the body--is the kind of detail that could easily have been be left out. Day-Lewis and Anderson, though, are the type of artists who delight in such specifics, and Phantom Thread is full of details like that. This is a tactile cinematic experience; the way the film looks, sounds, and feels is all of a piece with immersing us inside a uniquely sealed-off universe. Most of the film takes place inside an ornate townhouse (known as "the house of Woodcock") where spiraling staircases are used as gliding elevators for seamstresses, maids, and models. As Johnny Greenwood's majestically gorgeous score (incorporating classical motifs, recurring piano, and jazzy interludes) swirls around the mansion's corridors, Anderson cuts elegantly rhythmic montages showing us Reynolds's daily routines.
The particulars of Mr. Woodcock's rituals--the way he shaves, puts on socks, sketches his dress designs, and eats breakfast--are important insofar as they give us a clue into the artist's headspace. A man of order and routine, Reynolds must create a very particular dimension in which to work, and as a member of privilege, his mode of passive-aggressiveness reflects a strident need for self-control. During the early moments, one of his lovers is seen trying to get his attention during breakfast, to which Reynolds scolds her, takes an angry bite of a Danish, and storms out of the room. The woman is sent packing; signifying the way Reynolds's mood can shift when his precious routine is threatened, and Day-Lewis makes even the most mundane activity endlessly fascinating. Rather than the hulking physical presence and explosive rage of Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood, the actor retreats inward here; creating a recessive character with a lilting voice and knack for obsessive behavior.
Anderson is wise to so fully absorb us in Woodcock's world that when he meets a waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps), and begins wooing her, the eventual disruption of his ritualistic lifestyle is felt like a knife loudly buttering toast. If Anderson wore his influences earnestly during the early part of his career--the Scorsese-esque tracking shots during Boogie Nights, the Altman ensemble interconnectedness of Magnolia--here his nods feel less insistent and more of a piece with his growing maturation as a filmmaker. At times, Phantom Thread recalls Kubrick; the chilly remove and period stateliness of Barry Lyndon feels like an influence, as do the scenes of Reynolds and Alma driving along abandoned roads at night, which are executed in a way resembling Alex's joyrides in A Clockwork Orange. Perhaps more overt is Anderson's homages to Hitchcock, especially Rebecca and Psycho. There's even a shot of Reynolds peering at Alma through a peep-hole.
Phantom Thread is not a film in which the plot matters, although where Anderson takes the story is genuinely surprising. The film's concerns have more to do with the emotional and psychological effect positions of power have on relationships. This is something Anderson has been interested in over the past decade; the neurotic lovers of Punch-Drunk Love and the Freddie Quell/Lancaster Dodd relationship from The Master come most immediately to mind. Here, we have a story where the troubled male genius finds his submissive female muse. The trope of the older man in a position of power seducing the ingénue is well-worn territory, but Anderson subverts this notion by having Alma subvert the dynamics of the relationship. There's an astonishing sequence during their first date where Reynolds measures Alma for a dress. This is basically a sex scene in which he overpowers her by flexing his artistic impulses, but it's a masturbatory gesture; the equivalent of selfish pleasure derived from one's own work rather the woman standing in plain sight. Alma's reaction to this event--at first submissive, then cautious, before eventually pushing back--is a turning point, shifting the film almost entirely into her perspective. Krieps is absolutely remarkable here in a tricky role; getting us to both understand and be unsure about Alma in a way that plays into the couple's strange courtship.
Even as Anderson's camera begins to favor Alma, Phantom Thread is by no means simply the tale of a strong-willed woman toppling the patriarchy. That would be fine, but the film is much more complicated than that; emerging as a bizarre love story, a statement on 21st-century female autonomy, a brittle black comedy of manners, and a vision of the matriarchy coexisting within the patriarchy. To this final point, the way the character of Reynolds’s sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville) is used within the story is crucial. As played by Manville in a striking and wry performance, Cyril is essentially the wife, caregiver, manager, and confidant of Reynolds, but she can also take him to task in a way others cannot. More importantly, Cyril comes to respect and understand Alma in a manner foreign to Reynolds. Rather than simply appear as someone stridently doing what's "best" for her brother, her motives and reactions are much more complex.
The idea of powerlessness as the optimal state is key to where Phantom Thread eventually goes, as this may be the first time in an Anderson film where a female character so fully resurrects the pathetic male need for powerlessness. As a symbolic placeholder for Reynolds's mother (whom we see in one incredible hallucination scene), Alma taps into these psychological areas as a way to shift the power dynamic. Rather than play merely as a reductive Freudian construct (though it could be read that way), Alma's choices reflect not only Reynolds's suppressed desires to be drained and then revived, but also her longing for control and empathy. The film's ending is ridiculous, but knowingly so, and Anderson wants us to laugh in befuddlement at the couple's deranged logic. In fact, Phantom Thread is one of Anderson's most subversively hilarious pictures; deriving nervous comedy out of the sound of buttered toast and the silence of awkward glances. It's a the kind of gambit very few filmmakers could get away with, but Anderson, much like Reynolds, is such an exactingly precise artist that the only choice is complete and utter surrender.