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Written & Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Before it had even been released, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread became the subject of buzz and speculation. On June 20, 2017, six months before the film was due to open, Daniel Day-Lewis announced that it would contain his last screen role. Prior to that, the film was weighted with the expectation of being the new work of a director known for his uncompromising artistic vision; now it was also going to be the last artistic statement from the greatest actor of his generation. Yet Phantom Thread has defied those expectations — it is one of the most delicate, small-scale films Anderson has ever made, with Day-Lewis at his most subtle.
Set in 1950s London, Day-Lewis plays clothing designer Reynolds Woodcock. (What a name!) His dresses, unlike the more chic, experimental outfits coming out of Paris, have a conservative but timeless elegance; they would look just as beautiful ten years before, ten years after, or even fifty years later. Every morning, a parade of seamstresses and dressmakers climb the steps of his house to begin their work. They’re supervised by his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), who also serves as his partner and confidant. It’s ultimately Reynolds’ vision that goes into the dresses, but her taste and recommendations are always at play. He refers to her as his “old so-and-so,” a nickname that not only displays his affection and admiration for her, but also gets at the indefinable nature of her relationship to him. She is inextricably linked to every aspect of his professional and personal lives — no single title could ever sum it all up.
Reynolds is a man of routines and rituals. His breakfast, his work hours, his evening walks, and his dinners out all follow the same patterns. Small disturbances, like the sound of a knife scraping against toast, are enough to drive him to distraction. (Nowadays he might be diagnosed with a sensory disorder or a high-functioning form of autism.) Into this routine stumbles — quite literally — Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps), a waitress he meets when stopping for a bite after one of his long walks. Despite being a “confirmed bachelor,” Reynolds becomes fascinated with Alma. She has a directness lacking in his other women; it’s notable that whenever she responds in the affirmative, she says “yes” with no hesitation or uncertainty. Once the two have started dating, she says to Reynolds: “Whatever you do, do it carefully.” She might as well be speaking about herself.
It’s tempting to say more about the course of Reynolds and Alma’s relationship, its twists and turns, but the less said, the better. It’s safe to say, however, that Anderson has written and filmed a romance more compelling than any of his previous attempts (Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love).
Like all of his films since There Will Be Blood (2007), Anderson’s camera delights in carefully composed images and stately lighting. After preferred cinematographer Robert Elswit was unavailable, Anderson chose to go it alone. No one is credited in the role, but Anderson stated that he worked collaboratively with lighting cameraman Michael Bauman and camera operator Colin Anderson. He downplayed his own contributions, but Anderson and his colleagues have created one of the best looking films of this year or any year. The House of Woodcock is lit mostly with glaringly fluorescent lights, but the movie accentuates the whites, giving everything a pleasing sheen. The look of 1950s London is so effectively created that one gets the sense that this is what the saturated Technicolor classics of the era might have looked like had they used more natural colors.
Those glorious yet refined colors particularly suit Krieps, whose face often takes on a scarlet hue. As Reynolds’ muse (at least initially), she shows off many of his most elegant outfits. (Her gowns elicited audible gasps from the audience at the screening I attended). But Alma isn’t merely eye candy for Reynolds; Krieps plays her with a tenderness that makes her moments of rebellion all the more shocking. Day-Lewis is first-billed, but the film belongs to Krieps. Both Alma and Cyril provide a necessary antidote to Reynolds’ toxic masculinity.
Still, it’s impossible to ignore Day-Lewis. His role is a great examination of the artist who chews up those around him to feed his creativity. It’s also far more subtle than the scenery chewing of There Will Be Blood or Lincoln (2012). There’s a pivotal dinner toward the end of the film of which little should be revealed, aside from the fact that Reynolds undergoes a remarkable transformation. A lesser actor could never have sold the change, but Day-Lewis pulls off what becomes one of the most exhilarating moments of the film. Perhaps his best performance can be found in previous work, but few actors have gone out on such high notes.
I’ve written before about Anderson and his heroes and influences, especially Robert Altman, John Huston, and Orson Welles, but he’s animated by a different filmmaker in Phantom Thread: Alfred Hitchcock. Anderson’s fluid camera makes us feel like a spy, glancing at something important that we shouldn’t have seen. There are obvious visual references, like when Reynolds spies on Alma through a keyhole with the same intensity that Norman Bates spied on an unsuspecting Marion Crane in Psycho (1960). The crucial difference is that Alma knows he’s watching, and even shows off for him. Anderson upsets Hitchcock’s male gaze by putting Alma in charge of her own image. Scenes where Alma and other women model Reynolds’s clothing bring to mind Scotty’s obsession with finding just the right gray suit to bring back his departed Madeleine in Vertigo (1954). (One of the models is even dressed in a similar gray suit.) The tone mirrors many of the more romantic and comedic parts of Hitchcock’s filmography, and certain plot developments later on resonate with one of his early American films, Suspicion (1941).
Yet there’s one Hitchcock film that has an outsize influence on Phantom Thread: Krieps told me at a screening that Anderson made his collaborators view Hitchcock’s gothic romance, Rebecca (1940). The three leads of Phantom Thread all share aspects of the leads in Hitchcock’s film, and the ornate look of the earlier movie certainly matches Reynolds’ fashion. Even Alma’s name is of great significance — it’s also the name of Hitchcock’s wife, a woman who worked behind the scenes on almost every aspect of her husband’s films.
Though Phantom Thread wears its influences proudly, it never devolves into a game of spot-the-allusion. Anderson’s communion with other filmmakers emboldens and strengthens his vision, rather than limiting it. It’s the kind of film that leaves you with a sore face from grinning at its sheer audacity and invention. At its best, cinema is a hypnotic experience, and it’s hard not to be mesmerized by Phantom Thread.
Brian Marks is Sordid Cinema’s Lead Film Critic. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, LA Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and Ampersand. He’s a graduate of USC’s master’s program in Specialized Arts Journalism. You can find more of his writing at InPraiseofCinema.com. Best film experience: driving halfway across the the country for a screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s “King Lear.” Totally worth it.
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