Phantom Thread is another gorgeous fever dream of a film by Anderson, with Day-Lewis’ powerhouse performance matched by his costar Vicky Krieps’ here.
Ten years after Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis first joined forces on their celebrated Upton Sinclair adaptation There Will Be Blood (which was released in 2007), the acclaimed filmmaker and three time Oscar-winning actor have reunited for an original period drama titled Phantom Thread. Following the release of There Will Be Blood, Anderson explored collective trauma and the rise of cultism after WWII in 2012’s The Master. He then examined the death of 1960s counterculture and birth of ’70s authoritarianism with his Thomas Pynchon adaptation Inherent Vice in 2014. For his latest project, Anderson unexpectedly turns his eye to the London fashion scene of the mid-20th century, delivering yet another film that manages to be both fascinating and frustrating in the process. Phantom Thread is another gorgeous fever dream of a film by Anderson, with Day-Lewis’ powerhouse performance matched by his costar Vicky Krieps’ here.
Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) is a widely renowned and celebrated dressmaker who leads a highly structured life, complete with a rotating set of women to inspire him and offer him intimacy, and the help of his equally meticulous and work-driven sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) to further ensure that Reynolds’ day to day routine operates as smoothly as clockwork. However, everything changes after Reynolds goes out for breakfast one morning and meets Alma Elson (Krieps), a waitress whom Reynolds immediately takes a liking to when she reveals a knack for handling his fastidious manner and temperament.
As Alma starts to become more and more integral to Reynolds’ everyday life, she begins to challenge his “rules” and even speak out against his sometimes oppressively structured way of living. When Reynolds responds to this by growing more controlling towards her and behaving in a manner that suggests he’s ready to move on and find his next muse, Alma decides to take matters into her own hands, rather than allow him to dismiss their love affair as yet another passing fad in his life.
Phantom Thread, as indicated earlier, has a stream of consciousness narrative design similar to those of The Master and Inherent Vice in particular, as well as a shared interest in exploring power dynamics through human relationships. The term “phantom thread” itself comes from the Victorian Era, as East London seamstresses found themselves compelled to continue sewing with nothing in their hands after long hours of repetitive and relentless physical labor. Anderson’s film explores related ideas about how invisible forces (memories, emotions) control people and the dynamic between the artist and their muse, seamlessly weaving together elements of a Gothic romance with a psychological thriller, as well as a twisted satire of male artists and their toxic behavior. Phantom Thread nods to the collective work of Alfred Hitchcock thematically in this respect, at the same time that it mixes the washed out, dreamlike visuals of Anderson’s last two movies with claustrophobic and suspenseful imagery that evoke “The Master of Suspense”
What arguably sets Phantom Thread above something like mother! (Darren Aronofsky’s own “weird” and multilayered arthouse flick about an artist and his muse that first hit theaters last year) is that the film’s three main characters are fascinating on their own, even ignoring the movie’s deeper layers of meaning. Directing from his own script, Anderson is careful with how much he uses dialogue here and crafts many a wordless or near-worldless sequence that leaves it to the audience to intuit what is going on in Reynolds, Alma, and Cyril’s heads at any given moment. As different as each of these characters are in manner and behavior, they are all searching for the same thing in different ways (re: a sense of purpose), making their arcs over the course of the film all the more intriguing and engaging to watch unfold.
Day-Lewis’ performance here is also refreshingly different from his turn in There Will Be Blood, or any of his other celebrated roles to date. The actor deftly maneuvers Reynolds’ sharp emotional shifts throughout Phantom Thread, making it all the more believable when he goes from being a fastidious yet professional and elegant artist one scene to a petulant and spoiled man-child with a sharp tongue the next. Krieps as Alma isn’t as fully developed in comparison, but she is provided with some proper agency and personality. The romantic yet offbeat music by Johnny Greenwood (Anderson’s frequent collaborator) further underscores Krieps’ performance in this respect, making it clear that Alma is neither a helpless prey for the Woodcocks nor a villain in disguise.
Both Manville and her character Cyril hold their ground against their peers in Phantom Thread, delivering a great performance of her own. Cyril also brings to mind Amy Adams’ character Peggy Dodd from The Master, with respect to her role in the ever shifting power struggle between Reynolds and Alma throughout the course of the film’s narrative. Phantom Thread frequently calls attention to this through careful blocking and shot composition, often literally placing Cyril between Reynolds and either Alma or one of the other important women in his life (including, his other lovers and the aristocrats/royalty whom he designs most of his dresses for). Manville may have the quietest role to play of the movie’s three leads, but like her character she is essential to holding the whole thing together.
As handsomely crafted and carefully orchestrated as Phantom Thread is on the whole, it’s very much cut from the same cloth as Anderson’s last two films. In other words, those filmgoers who found The Master and/or Inherent Vice to be boring and pretentious may wind up with similar feelings towards the final installment in the spiritual trilogy that Phantom Thread forms with those movies. At the same time, those who are fans of Anderson’s most recent work and/or are fascinated by the film’s subject matter will want to give this one a look – preferably on the big screen, in order to fully appreciate its painterly visuals. If this really is Daniel Day-Lewis final screen performance before he retires from acting, then it’s an excellent way for him to both gracefully bow out and give audiences something to talk about, after he’s gone.
Phantom Thread is now playing in a semi-wide U.S. theatrical release. It is 130 minutes long and is rated R for language.
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