8.8

Phantom Thread

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<i>Phantom Thread</i>

1. Phantom Thread is a movie that is so wonderfully made, so meticulous in its construction, so deeply felt in execution, that you can almost overlook how prickly and scabrous it is. This has to be the most luscious film to watch ever that is in large part about how self-centered and inflexible the world of relationships can be, how we can only give up so much of ourselves and it’s up to our partner to figure out how to deal with that, if they want to at all. This is an uncompromising movie about two uncompromising people who try to live with one another without losing too large a part of themselves, and the sometimes extreme lengths they will go to get their way. Both of the principals of Phantom Thread are absurd and insane in their own ways, and one of the many thrills of the film is watching them bounce off each other, and then collide again. It’s the oddest little love story, so odd that I’m not even sure it’s about love at all. That doesn’t mean they can’t still be together, or that you shouldn’t want them to.

2. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a world-famous dressmaker who clothes celebrities, royalty and, sometimes to his chagrin, déclassé wealthy vulgarians. In The House of Woodcock, almost everything that doesn’t meet his exacting standards is vulgarian, including a series of initially compelling but ultimately interchangeable women who are discarded by Reynolds’ sister (and assistant) Cyril (Lesley Manville) with a quick whisk of the hand and a parting gift of one of Reynolds’ lesser dress creations. One day while in the English countryside, Reynolds comes across a waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps) who both meets Reynolds’ physical requirements (specifically so he can make dresses for her) and has a certain pluck that he instantly finds fascinating. But Reynolds has a tendency to find women fascinating in the short term. It’s what happens afterward that’s the problem.

3. Alma, seemingly overnight, moves into The House of Woodcock and, at first, is treated by Cyril and the rest of the staff like all the others: politely, respectfully, but with the understanding that their interactions will have an end date. But Alma has a little more fire in her belly, and more of a hold over Reynolds, than some of the House’s previous occupants, even as certain other Reynolds’ eccentricities do become more apparent the longer she stays. (No movie has ever made the buttering of toast seem so sonically violent.) The movie continues down this path of a push-pull between the pathologically exacting Reynolds and the increasingly resilient Alma. Who’s going to win this battle of the spirits? Why are they even fighting so hard in the first place?

4. My colleague Tim Grierson said this first, but it’s too good an observation to ignore as I sit down to write this review: This movie is in large part about the absolute unknowability of other people’s relationships. From the outside, it makes no sense that Reynolds and Alma would have this sort of connection with each other; it’s difficult to tell what either person is getting out of it. But what’s unfathomable about it is also what makes it so powerful: Somehow, these two are inextricable from each other. They just go about discovering it in a particularly unconventional way. To watch them parry back and forth at each other could be, probably should be, distressing, but it never is. You’re too busy trying to figure these two out. It’s impossible to fully get there. But the mystery never stops being intoxicating.

5. Much has been made of this being Daniel Day-Lewis’ final screen performance, and while I’m not entirely sure I believe that to be true—one can only cobble for so long—it’s certainly an unusual one to go out on if it is truly his last. This is not one of those thunderous Daniel Day-Lewis performances in which he commands every inch of every frame. He is quieter here, almost reserved; in fact, he even seems to recede as the film goes along, as it becomes clearer that he does not perhaps have as much power in this relationship as he thought he did. The film’s second half is dominated by Krieps and Manville, as they take command and, in a way, put Reynolds, and all Great Male Artists Whose Whims Must Be Catered To, in his place. As far as Anderson projects go, this one doesn’t have quite the sweep of some of his past ones: I’ll confess, after mother!, my patience for the “how do great artists live in the regular world, and how do those who love them deal with them?” trope is beginning to wear thin. But there’s much more going on in Phantom Thread than just that. I’m not entirely sure I understand all of it; as always, Anderson’s filmmaking skill is so inherent that there’s something almost primal about his films at times—they are happening at some sort of instinctive level. But Phantom Thread gets under your skin. On the surface, it is proper and refined and exquisite. But underneath, messy, angry real life keeps bubbling up, fervent and eager to escape. At last, it bursts through the seams. It always does.

Grade: A-

Director:   Paul Thomas Anderson  
Writer:   Paul Thomas Anderson  
Starring:   Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville
Release Date: December 25, 2017


Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

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