Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Stars: Vicky Krieps, Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville
There is a darkly comic scene somewhere in the region of an hour into Phantom Thread in which a woman named Barbara Rose (Harriet Sansom Harris) sits pickled at a wedding party in an outfit made for her by master dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis). Though she fights the inevitable, she eventually falls foul of her indulgence and collapses face first onto the tablecloth, lost to an alcoholic stupor. In that moment I wished to join her in her abyss. Not because Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film is interminable – far from it – but rather in case I might awake within the frame, transported into this woozy, untrustworthy creation that the American master has woven for us.
Following the brilliant comedic ensemble piece Inherent Vice, Phantom Thread finds Anderson returning to the more knotty, character driven work that typified both There Will Be Blood and The Master. Here, again, he narrows in on a very small number of people (three to be precise) in a very specific situation, and details the ways in which their personalities are generated and sustained by one another. The three films might even form a loose trilogy, as Anderson continues to pluck at the fascinating conundrums that bind us all.
Following two winners with Joaquin Phoenix, Anderson here reunites with Day-Lewis (for, supposedly, his final performance). The setting is the grey skied London of the 1950’s and his prime subject – at least to begin with – is the aforementioned dressmaker. Renowned in the field for his exquisite creations, Reynolds Woodcock is a mild-mannered, prissy, but brazenly confident creation. His personality is defined by precision, from the exactitude of the routines in his life (little ceremonies that in combination feel downright fetishistic) to the careful manner of his speech, in which each word is enunciated perfectly. He’s a self-styled bachelor, whose closeness with women is coyly guarded, even as we find him dismissing one and immediately setting up with another, Alma (Vicky Krieps).
Discovering Alma as a waitress in a coastal B&B while taking a reprieve from his work, Woodcock becomes smitten and does his finest to charm his new muse. They quickly fall into a pattern that one might expect, in lesser hands, to remain throughout the film; a dom/sub relationship whereby he gains a sense of strength and purpose from herding her to his will, while she finds compliance pleasurable as it coaxes out his warmth. In these early stages there is an unspoken understanding between them that, even in terms they couldn’t adequately articulate, they fulfill certain needs in one another.
Anderson’s work has never featured such a prominent female role. For all his masterpieces, his cinema has largely been a masculine concern, and initially Phantom Thread seems as though it might not do right by Alma. Krieps is superb in the role, but she works largely in deference to Day-Lewis. This is in keeping with the roles the two of them play through the opening portion of the film and, as one might well have foreseen, Anderson is drawn to Day-Lewis like a moth to a flame. Even as Woodcock is a reserved and contained character, there is still a largeness to the way in which Day-Lewis comports himself. Fortunately, this doesn’t feel at odds with the character at all; there is something of a diva’s temperament about the man. And yet, as things progress, and through her very silences (be they captivated or in defiance), Krieps starts to take over the picture as Alma and Reynolds’ positions gradually start to shift.
As a result Krieps’ Alma comes to feel like the most considered woman in PTA’s work thus far. She goes toe-to-toe with Day-Lewis, and the chemistry between them, when their characters are locked in love or otherwise, never fails to wholeheartedly convince.
But there is a third significant player here (as well as a forth, though far less tangible presence). Lesley Manville plays Woodcock’s sister Cyril; his committed assistant and trusted advisory. She is ever-present, much to Alma’s initial shock. Indeed Woodcock is so accustom to having her at his side that he doesn’t blanch at her appearance in the most intimate of scenarios. Mercifully no suggestion of a bizarre sexual undertone is spun here (something which has become a weary cliché of late), but still it presents for Alma a unique pressure point in their burgeoning romance, and the methods required to ensure that she retains a sense of ownership over Woodcock only intensify.
It is this very desire that corkscrews Phantom Thread into its delicious second phase. It has long been the case that a romance or a marriage is compared to a battle or even a war, and so life between these three becomes a succession of victories and retreats. What’s curious is how the very act of losing can become a source of reprieve and rejuvenation, especially for Woodcock, whose delicate temperament requires periods of rest. Indeed, in order for balance to be restored, an entirely more perverse routine needs to be established. In the process, Phantom Thread becomes a masterclass in understanding the masochism of giving oneself over to another. Anderson’s film may be the finest ever made about BDSM to not once feature a whipcrack or even a sex scene. He acknowledges that such dispositions are not limited to the bedroom, and manifest in many other ways. The film’s most recent rival, therefore, would be Peter Strickland’s essential The Duke Of Burgundy.
Jonny Greenwood scores again, providing his fullest, most lush orchestrations to match the lavishness of life in the Woodcock home. And, for the first time, Anderson lenses his film himself, taking up duties as Director of Photography. In this regard he is as fastidious as his subject, but without resorting to anything too gauche. Every shot feels like the one he envisaged, and the precision is such that it’s a small wonder that this film was made in such a comparatively short amount of time. As in all of his recent pictures there are frequent nods to Kubrick. Where Inherent Vice felt like Anderson’s Dr Strangelove, Phantom Thread somehow manages to collide references to A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon. No mean feat.
And it’s not just Kubrick. One feels that this movie is in conversation with a whole host of others, not least Hitchock’s Rebecca.
But this is Anderson’s film through and through. It is becoming increasingly difficult to shuffle his masterpieces into any semblance of order with regards to quality. There are cases to be made for nearly all his pictures. Without hesitation, however, I would place Phantom Thread in the thick of the competition for his very best. Despite their varying ways of hiding and protecting themselves, Reynolds and Alma are two of the most intimate and open characters that Anderson has yet presented us with, when wounded and when wicked. They may love it and loath it, but they are intrinsically tethered to one another.
Cinematic gifts this complete appear so rarely and I’m optimistic that revisiting this one will only reveal further details in which to revel. I feel drunk on this movie, ready to keel over and, if I might dare hope, wind up lost deep inside it. Frighteningly close to perfect.