Cinema: In 'Phantom Thread' Beauty and Obsession Become One
Few contemporary films cast as large a shadow as 2007’s There Will Be Blood. A ruthless American epic about greed and religion, the film solidified Paul Thomas Anderson as one of the most gifted directors of his generation, and Daniel Day-Lewis as perhaps the greatest actor of any generation. The notion of these titans reuniting ten years later was appealing in many ways, yet tentative in others, as it remained to be seen whether they-- or anyone, for that matter-- could reach the heights of their earlier triumph.
Phantom Thread reaches this rarified height. It does so with such elegance, in fact, that one feels foolish for even questioning Anderson and Day-Lewis in the first place. They have crafted a film that is in every way an equal to There Will Be Blood, only in place of soul-bearing sermons and spewing oil wells, the magic is conjured up through exquisite design and emotional nuance.
Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a famed dressmaker in 1950s London. His is a life characterized by routine, by the rigid control of every single person he encounters. That is, until he meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), the spirited waitress who becomes his latest muse. Their relationship blooms, but as the worlds of routine and romance begin to collide, Reynolds and Alma find themselves in a struggle for who's spirit will prevail. I’ll refrain from spoilers, but Phantom Thread unfolds in such bizarre, lyrical bursts that the term “spoiler” carries little weight here. It has more coherency than something like The Master or Inherent Vice, but only just so. We’re still dealing with a director who uses tedium the way some painters use watercolor, and who loves challenging our preconceived notions of what can be "dramatic."
Day-Lewis reverses the outward menace of his oil baron in Blood for a tightly coiled performance. The same obsessive streak lingers, but its carefully restrained under the surface. Day-Lewis plays this restraint as only an actor of his caliber can, letting the pauses in between his words linger so that we may have time to read too far into them. One moment, he’s offering Alma a kindly smile, the next he’s turning their dinner into a verbal war zone. It's a wonderfully volatile performance, less flashy than Blood, perhaps, but one that will linger just as long. It's a credit to Krieps and Lesley Manville, who plays Reynolds’s domineering sister, that they're able to keep up with their leading man without losing a step.
Day-Lewis’s partner-in-crime, Anderson, also subdues his flashier tendencies behind the camera. Where long tracking shots and vast landscapes have distinguished his previous films, Anderson confines himself to a mansion primarily made up of doors, windows, and cramped hallways. There is a claustrophobic switch to Phantom Thread that’s flipped in conjunction with the characters’s discomfort, and it is here that Anderson’s primary stylistic influence on the film, Alfred Hitchcock, is most evident. A matriarchal spirit looms over each room. Every garment worn has a secret message sewn into the lining. Reynolds is constantly peering out from behind corners and keyholes. Not since the likes of Rebecca or Vertigo has a psychological drama felt so ornate, both inside and out.
In the same breath, not enough can be said about composer Jonny Greenwood. Utilizing him much in the way that Hitchcock used Bernard Hermann, Anderson drapes Greenwood’s swooning strings over the film like so many lavish garments, teasing out the romantic tension in even the briefest of scenes. There are stretches, particularly in the first act, where Phantom Thread resembles a genuine musical; the flock of seamstresses descending the staircase; the camera panning up through the house as they assemble; even Reynolds’s movement during a dress fitting suggests an otherworldly, rhythmic quality. To say Greenwood deserved the Oscar for Best Original Score nearly undersells how important he is to the film’s aesthetic.
In capturing the feeling of falling deeply, desperately in love, Phantom Thread is a triumph. Its woozy, idiosyncratic aesthetic will stay with you long after the credits have rolled and the characters have departed. Other films may be more timely, or politically relevant, but Anderson's is of the rare breed that transcends trendiness. It is filmmaking in its purest form, timeless and contemporary all at once. See it as soon as possible. And then again after that.