I make no excuses about the fact that I adore every Paul Thomas Anderson film to varying (often excessive) degrees. And while all of them have felt very “adult” in the sense that they are about and for grown folks, there’s always been something playful and subversively youthful about them.
I think an argument can be made that his latest, Phantom Thread, is Anderson’s most mature work. That in no way means it isn’t without his signature qualities, which is ironic considering that the lead character is little more than a grownup child, addicted to routines and schedules that, when strayed from, cause him to throw tantrums that the most emotional toddler would envy.
Why would you want to see a film about such a man? Because Phantom Thread is about what extremes it takes to finally knock such a privileged man-baby down from his pedestal and behave like a human being.
Ten years after their dark and wonderful pairing in There Will Be Blood, Anderson and star Daniel Day-Lewis (who won his second Oscar for that film) re-team for this deceptively simple chamber piece set in early-1950s London in the home/workshop of esteemed, high-end dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock. For Woodcock, his craft is not just about fabric and stitching. He’s an artist, pure and simple, and Day-Lewis shows us the manner in which Reynolds observes, obsesses and crafts his pieces as a pure extension of his vision. His client’s body is the canvas, so much so that as he’s running his eyes over their form, he likely doesn’t see the human being behind the eyes.
Being dressed in a gown from the House of Woodcock is a process that goes well beyond taking measurements. There are conversations, debates, and a real effort to capture/expose the woman inside. Only when his clients come in for their final fitting does Reynolds truly see them. One woman refers to the process as “All we’ve been through,” and we sense that an ordeal of sorts has finally come to an end. There is also a sense that Reynolds doesn’t really care about what is fashionable to the outside world; he’s aiming for timeless designs. When someone dares to use the word “chic” in his presence, he practically spits in their face for doing so.
But the House of Woodcock is a two-person operation (in addition to the many seamstresses that scurry silently around behind the operation). Reynolds’ faithful right hand is his sister Cyril (the impeccable stage and British TV mainstay and Mike Leigh regular Lesley Manville), who is never far from her brother’s side, anticipating his every word and whim, especially when it comes to the women in his life. We get a brief glimpse of how she handles the latest companion that he’s tired of; she is let go with a consolation dress and a metaphoric pat on the head.
We assume Cyril has ice in her veins when it comes to protecting Reynolds’ creative space, but one of Phantom Thread’s many wonderful surprises is watching her tear into her brother while barely raising an eyebrow. For the record, Manville is the supporting actress I’ll be rooting for throughout awards season.
While on a respite in the country after his latest fling falls apart, Reynolds runs into Alma (Vicky Krieps), a cafe waitress with a flair for dramatic pauses (she delivers several at key moments in the film). She has enough of a spark to intrigue the designer, and the perfect figure to wear his dresses the way they were meant to be worn. Born in Luxembourg (although she quite often plays German characters) Krieps first caught my attention in 2011’s Hanna, but she absolutely floored me a few years later in the strange and slightly dangerous German film The Chambermaid, which I have to imagine is where Anderson first spotted her. From the minute he meets her, Woodcock tests her commitment to his needs by ordering a great deal of breakfast food and then taking away the slip of paper where she’s written down the order, playfully demanding that she place the order from memory.
By the end of their first date, he’s got her in the workshop of his country home, stripped down to her transparent slip and trying out different fabric swatches against her skin. The master craftsman is lowering himself to dress a commoner, and for reasons impossible to understand, it’s the ultimate seduction, as he paws her body more like a doctor than a lover. He informs her that she has no breasts, something that we learn has clearly bothered her for her entire adult life. But he follows up by telling her that it’s the perfect quality in a model and that it’s his job to give her breasts…if he chooses to.
It’s easy to see Alma as just another plaything for Reynolds, but there are signs of small rebellion in her words and actions, which continue to amplify as they get closer. With almost no warning, she’s moved into his London home, given her own room (right next door to his) and turned into his primary model, wearing his creations out on his arm for the world to see. Although in all likelihood, she is invisible compared to whatever dress she wears.
As Phantom Thread progresses, it becomes something both sinister and fascinating. Reynolds’ every word seems like a passive-aggressive means of controlling Alma’s behavior. One morning, he snaps at her for buttering her toast too loudly. As silly as that sounds, the next time we see them at breakfast, as she butters her bread, she makes about as much sound as rubbing two pieces of velvet together. He has simply taken over her life, and it’s an easy one to be swept into. But as the time passes (Anderson is deliberately vague about how much time passes during the course of this story), she begins to challenge his presumed authority and the world’s adherence to his moods and schedules. He does not respond well. She prepares a quiet, surprise dinner for him, sending all of the workers and Cyril out for the night, and by the end of the evening, he accuses her of trying to murder him.
Most of the film is told in flashback, as Alma is sitting before a fireplace talking to an unknown confessor. The use of her voice as narration is sparse but quite revealing, and we’re given a peek into not only how these two latch onto each other despite the destructive forces that are often set loose when they are together, but also that she was more aware of it happening than we realize. To make matters worse, Cyril (whom Reynolds often refers to as “My old so-and-so”) takes a shine to Alma, and before long even she is defying her brother’s authority and childish behavior. The shifts in power are so subtle you almost don’t notice them until they are fully in place, and then we are astonished.
Without giving one of the film’s major plot turns away regarding how Alma discovers the potential she has to gain some control of Reynolds, it’s a moment that feels like a tectonic shift. But after a few weeks or months of this first discovery, Reynolds begins to revert back to his old ways. Alma has decisions to make, but the film is deliberately murky concerning who we should be siding with in this scenario (it’s more complicated than I’m letting on).
And so much of the film is wrapped up in Reynolds’ theories on dressmaking, layering secrets and messages in the lining of a garment or jacket (literally), and maintaining absolute control over both his creative process and his life that by the end of Phantom Thread we are left both dazzled and perhaps slightly confounded.
Acting as his own uncredited cinematographer and once again weaving in a gorgeous score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, Anderson continues to evolve and shift as a filmmaker in a direction I honestly didn’t see coming, and nothing makes me happier. He’s actually getting better and more refined at what he does, and that only bodes well for the decades of new works still to come.
It helps that he’s anchored by three of the finest performances in recent memory from Day-Lewis, Krieps and Manville. And if this is truly Daniel Day-Lewis’s last role as an actor (I doubt it is, for what it’s worth), he’s going out on a splendid note with a character that is sure to be debated, loved and hated. In many ways, it’s a perfect work of art—not unlike Reynolds’ dresses—because it’s not attempting to appeal to the masses. It’s about the filmmaker putting onto the screen the exact vision he has in his mind. See it, then see it again and again…
The film expands into larger markets (including Chicago) this Friday and nationwide next week. But honestly, if you live in Chicago, you must must must see Phantom Thread at the Music Box Theatre, which is featuring one of only seven 70mm prints in existence.