Movie Review: Phantom Thread
By Matthew Huntley
January 24, 2018
Phantom Thread is a rich, layered film of heavy atmosphere and quiet mystery. Watching it, one senses there's always something brewing beneath the surface, although it's never certain what that is. Given what we know about mainstream movies, we expect the story to pounce on us at any minute and reveal its true nature and agenda, before simply adhering to the traditional narrative we’ve laid out for it in our heads. ??But then it dawns on us: this film was written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, and it no less stars Daniel Day-Lewis. This combination alone reminds us it would be impractical to assume the film should play out in any kind of traditional way. And yet, it doesn’t go against the grain for “going against the grain” sake; Anderson's ambitious execution, which he's displayed with some of his best work (Boogie Nights, Magnolia), of which this film is now among, simply makes the material more effective, adventurous and intriguing. He's a filmmaker who’s keen on the idea it’s not what a story is about but how it’s about it. ??
So, then, what is Phantom Thread about? What I can tell you is it centers on the day-to-day routines of a revered English couturier named Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis), who's tall, lean, pale, and just beyond middle-age. In the opening scene, we observe Woodcock as he performs his morning rituals - shaving, nose-hair trimming, dressing. His movements are so methodical and robotic, we imagine he could complete these tasks with his eyes closed. ??Perhaps it's because Woodcock is so in control and fastidious that he's also constantly on edge. The man has a temper and we feel he could snap at any moment should any aspect of his day deviate from the norm. At breakfast, when his latest lover questions their non-committal relationship, he sternly tells her, “I cannot start the day with a confrontation.”
The only person who seems to understand Woodcock's madness is his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), who has accepted her brother's ways and knows how to play his game. Together, in 1950s London, they run the House of Woodcock, making dresses for some of society's most elite women, including members of the royal family, celebrities, and affluent socialites and debutantes. Woodcock's work ethic and attention to detail have earned him an unblemished reputation for craftsmanship, and indeed he views his garments as works of art, leaving his mark in them via secret messages sewn into the linings. But, like the work of any artist, Woodcock's is both rewarding and painful for him. His latest client tells him her dress was “worth everything we’ve been through.”??
To unwind and clear his head, Woodcock ventures into the country and stays at his usual bed and breakfast. During his latest visit, he meets the young, naïve Alma (Vicky Krieps), a seemingly simple-minded waitress who catches his eye and whom Woodcock probably views as just another conquerable lover. But one of the running themes throughout Phantom Thread is the idea that there’s a lot more to people than what they do for a living, their age, or their life experiences. People, by nature, have the capacity to learn, adapt and constantly acquire and lose control. Such is life, and if I had to guess one of the messages Anderson wanted to convey with this film (it’s wonderful, by the way, that there as so many different possibilities), it would be that it’s dangerous and futile to think our lives will always stay the same, no matter how hard we try to make them that way, and it’s in our best interest to be proactive about disrupting the status quo ourselves, because it's the disruptions that make us feel alive. ??
When Woodcock invites Alma to live at his house and join his staff of docile, dedicated seamstresses, she’s thrilled and accepts his offer because she thinks she’s in love. Initially, their affair is passionate, impetuous and exciting. Alma, for the first time we assume, feels like she belongs and has a role to play in someone else's life. She feels needed and desired.??But then the novelty of their relationship begins to wear off and Woodcock’s infatuation with Alma starts to plateau, devolving, once again, into anger and resentment. Suddenly, Alma's everyday quirks and behaviors begin to push Woodcock's buttons, like the abrasive way she butters her toast, or the loud crunching sound she makes when she bites into it, or the painfully long time she takes to pour her coffee.
Alma, in turn, notices the emotional and physical chasm growing between them and feels threatened and jealous when he agrees to make the wedding dress for a French princess (Lujza Richter). In an effort to win Woodcock back, Alma takes it upon herself to make him dinner, against the advice of Cyril, who knows such an otherwise kind gesture will have devastating consequences.
How Phantom Thread transpires from here, I will not reveal, because it's up to you to discover whether it continues as a romance, a drama, a murder-revenge thriller, or even a comedy of sorts. What makes it so thoroughly engaging is the restraint Anderson shows to ever make it categorizable. As soon as the film leads us in one direction, it changes course. And yet, it's not abrupt, and wherever it does go, it's perfectly credible and the payoff is our getting to observe and care about two characters who grow, develop and become more complex with each passing scene. Anderson's screenplay applies a wide range of dimensions to them - sometimes they're reactionary, other times they're wise, patient and level-headed; sometimes they're happy, other times they're sad. One thing about their behavior, though, is it's never predictable, and by constantly changing the film's tones, Anderson invigorates all the genres it could fall into and it keeps us guessing and wondering.
In addition to being a narrative achievement, Phantom Thread is also technically first-rate. It pierces us with its imagery and sounds. Anderson, who served as his own director of photography, shot on 70mm film and his frames are sharp, wide and deep. The House of Woodcock, with its multiple levels, winding staircases, wooden floors, white paint, black hand rails, and heavy doors, is a mounting, distinguished setting with a personality all its own. It can be warm and inviting, yet cold and threatening; beautiful and magnificent, yet ominous and overwhelming. The house, like those who inhabit it, wears many faces, and even though this aspect was no accident on the part of the filmmakers, it's a perfect complement to the drama taking place. Each shot and scene seems to have been planned out with so much detail, from how much of a certain wall is exposed to the decibel level of the footsteps as characters walk across the floors and up and down the stairs. We notice everything happening on-screen and the film envelops us from all sides.
At first glance, Phantom Thread may not seem like it's about anything terribly original or exciting, and in fact, its themes are common among most narrative films. But because Anderson is constantly shuffling them and altering their paths, each achieves an advanced level of meaning and interpretation. We begin to see what we thought we had figured out in different shades, and suddenly, a film we assumed was simply going to follow traditional rules, and probably remain slow and conventional throughout, develops an unexpected energy and mystique. It's these qualities we'd be wise to seek out and infuse in our own day-to-day routines, because they make us feel alive.