Paul Thomas Anderson sews a tale of twisted love in the age of innocence.
You can sew almost anything into the canvas of a coat. When I was a boy I started to hide things in the linings of the garments, things that only I knew were there, secrets.
Phantom Thread is a beautiful thing. Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest film about a fashion designer in 1950s Britain is the visual treat you would expect from a story about the creation of beautiful objects. Phantom Thread is filled with dozens of gorgeous dresses in styles from ballgowns to wedding dresses, each more outstanding than the last. Anderson, acting as his own director of photography, frames them all like museum pieces. Though the film is hardly a teaching tool about fashion, you may leave the theater feeling like you understand when to use silk versus lace on a bodice or which cut is best for a statuesque body type. You wouldn’t be able to pass an exam, but you might envision that you’ve developed a deeper understanding in your soul. That’s the film’s affecting form of communication. But Phantom Thread is obsessed with far more than the visual.
Phantom Thread is Anderson’s eighth film, and his first collaboration with Daniel Day-Lewis since the latter’s Oscar-winning performance in There Will Be Blood as Daniel Plainview, a hyper-masculine oil baron at the outset of the 20th century. Day-Lewis’ character in Phantom Thread couldn’t be more different, here playing mannered fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock, a gentleman focused on the aesthetic over the mineral, more The Age of Innocence than petroleum wildcatter. Woodcock is an intense creature of habit, frequently curled into small rooms with his sketchbook and scoffing at the smallest interruptions. It’s such a disturbance that finds Woodcock dismissing his female companion and muse early in the film, though the act seems part of Woodcock’s larger routine of infatuating and then casting off his romances. Woodcock is surrounded by women, but only those who can unchangingly fit his repetitive life — namely his employees and his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville). As Woodcock says at one point, marrying would only result in a wife’s jealousy as he spends his days fixated on beautifying other women.
It’s in this newly liberated state that Woodcock meets Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps), a waitress at a country inn, and the two bond over a sensual discussion of food before embarking on a dinner date of their own which ends with Reynolds intimately wrapping his new love’s body in measuring tape, and admiring her like an Italian sculpture. But is it the woman who’s captured his attention, or merely the measurements as a vessel for his designs?
The film’s fascination with aestheticizing fashion for the viewer is one of its sensual joys. Phantom Thread finds delight in the clip of the scissors and the aforementioned tactile intimacy that comes with touching a client or model. It adds dramatic visual flair with the flourishes of purple and red that accentuate the film’s purposefully reserved set and costume design. Anderson weaves the obsession with the body’s senses into the film itself, from Reynolds’ annoyance at butter scraped too loudly over breakfast toast or water splashing into a teacup, to Cyril’s first impression of Alma being the residual fragrance of rosemary and lemon she carries from her dinner with Reynolds. A half dozen scenes take place around the dinner table with Reynolds imparting his opinions on everything from the importance of cream to a serving of porridge and the abomination of too much butter. Phantom Thread is a film with an omelette as a major plot device. Reynolds Woodcock is obsessed with control in all aspects of his life. Why would food be any different?
But Woodcock’s obsession is equally mirrored by Alma’s, with her overbearing focus on the designer as an extension of her attempts to remain an integral part of his life. Phantom Thread is curious about how people keep their work fresh and alive. For Woodcock, it’s his designs. For Alma, her work is Woodcock himself. Woodcock is a creature of his routines, and one is the replacing of mistresses who breathe fresh inspiration into his designs until they’re used up and discarded. It’s Alma’s obsession to remain indispensable. In essence, it’s the quest to keep her relationship with Woodcock fresh while somehow not disrupting his routine.
Paul Thomas Anderson is one of modern cinema’s directors most identifiable with an auteurist label. Anderson’s tight control of his films, often shooting them himself, support those who would view his filmmaking as the work of a singular vision as opposed to a collaborative effort. Whether Thomas supports this idea or not (I doubt he does), it will only add fuel to the fire for those who want to view Phantom Thread through an autobiographical lens. Anderson has been tabbed as an “Important Filmmaker” in the last decade (during the same time period when Anderson’s film credit switched from “P.T.” to the more mature “Paul Thomas”), whose films aren’t just movies, but works of art; a controlling figure in an artistic medium just like Woodcock and his fashion house. Woodcock hides pictures and secret stitched messages in the linings of his clothes, just as viewers search Anderson’s work for hidden secrets that imbue them with meaning.
Anderson’s work has also become more insular, released deep into the holiday season with private backing and a “take it or leave it” ethos for audiences and the Hollywood establishment. It’s not that I think Anderson doesn’t care about his films’ reception, but that he’s perfectly content making films for himself and a rabid cult fan-base like the deeply personal Phantom Thread. Reynolds Woodcock is content to work in his own style, disdaining the trendier wishes of some of his clients, and it’s easy to read analogues between art and artist whether Anderson intended them or not.
Much of the film’s publicity stemmed from Day-Lewis’s announcement that Phantom Thread would be his final performance as the actor intends to retire from acting (again). If that is the case, then the famed actor goes out on the high note of another typically excellent performance. Phantom Thread is purposefully paced, ranging a gamut of emotional states from the film’s early romance into frustration, boredom, and anger, and much of the credit goes to Day-Lewis and his ability to spin interpretive dialogue through his delivery. Anderson’s film is surprisingly funny even while not serving up obvious comedic cues for the audience, with Day-Lewis’s subtleties in delivery and mannerism speaking volumes where the dialogue says very little. There’s a reason he’s the only man to ever win three Best Actor Oscars. Is Phantom Thread a period drama? A chamber romance? Perhaps a tragedy or a black comedy? Yes. It’s all of them.
While Day-Lewis’s excellence is to be expected, Vicky Krieps is a wonderful surprise in her ability to stand in equal measure with the great actor. She’s every bit his match, delivering the kind of performance that’s hard to cut into an easy awards reel, but is a vital part of the film with the duplicity of her actions standing in opposition to Woodcock’s overt pursuit of his obsessions. It’s her job to quietly break the cycle of Woodcock’s obsessive routines and find a way to exist as a fully-realized person in the life of someone who only has time for one-dimensional servitude. Standing up to a foreign princess and asserting that you belong is minor is comparison.
Phantom Thread is the type of film that will only grow in stature on repeated viewings as fans pick its subtleties apart. What Anderson eventually has to say about how romance maintains an oxymoronic routine of freshness is only one piece of a larger banquet of delights that includes the performances, Anderson’s cinematography, yet another lush Jonny Greenwood score, and some truly swoon-worthy costume and set design. The result marks Anderson’s best film since There Will Be Blood, and a sly acknowledgment that the film’s best parts emerge from collaboration after all. After all, a dress is made by a dozen workers even if there’s only one man’s name on the label.