“A wild examination of interrupted and recalibrated interpersonal relationships, concealed under the cover of a lavish costume drama.”
by Ken Bakely
The gorgeously, gradually twisted psychology of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread is the drive which gives the film its exuberant life. Amidst the deceptively straight-edged beauty of its costume and set design, restraint gives way to increasingly obvious displays of domination and control. Power balances shift from act to act, bubbling under the surface until a stunning finale brings everything to the forefront with dazzling flourishes. It’s Anderson in top form, submerging us into his world with the lilt of his dialogue and quirks of his characters, as their flaws and strengths intermingle and wash over us. As Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), an acclaimed fashion designer in 1950s London, entrenches himself in his fussy and precise lifestyle, justifying his antisocial tendencies with his professional successes, the common wisdom of storytelling dictates that he will meet a usurper.
Anderson obliges us almost immediately. It’s maybe ten minutes into the film when Reynolds meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), a young waitress at a countryside inn. He places an elaborate breakfast order, and when she memorizes it, he knows that he’s found a new muse. At home, his sister and business partner Cyril (Lesley Manville), is used to his behavior, and his tendency to end relationships with little fanfare or consideration. But Alma is enchanting in unplaceable ways. Is it her sly smile, each occurrence carrying a different meaning? Or is it her ability to confront Reynolds’ unvarnished ego, yet defend him when others oppose his decisions? There’s always more to her than we’re seeing, and Krieps is exemplary at using our expectations against us. She matches the masterful turns of the script, as subtle gestures become operatic overtures, as signs of love – genuine, though uneven – begin blooming in Alma’s mind.
Eventually, the movie is more about her than it is about Reynolds. Yet these character definitions are hard to quantify, because Phantom Thread’s textual excellence comes from fluid motions of allegiance and appearance. Cyril’s position as the placating sibling, enforcing homeostasis for the House of Woodcock (the business and the residence) never changes, but the way she assuages her concerns for her brother’s personality is a source of constant surprise. The great irony here is how Reynolds, who prides himself on regular bouts of domineering crankiness, is in desire of an authoritative force. When he talks about hiding messages and mementos within the linings of his renowned dresses, it’s a valuable insight into his mind. These products are extensions of his own self, and those concealed items are expressions he is otherwise unable to articulate. The satisfaction comes from the secret, and as the film reveals to us, this is a character full of secret inclinations. They’re just not as concealed as he thinks.
What begins as a sturdy review of characters becomes something more fundamental. There’s a point about midway through Phantom Thread when you realize that every assumption you’ve made about the film’s intentions are completely wrong. You concede to one of the true pleasures of moviegoing: though you may guess where these characters will end up, you have no idea how they’ll get there. Anderson seduces us with his hazy cinematography, as soft sunlight parses in through the windows onto the House of Woodcock’s spotless walls. It’s as if the movie takes place within a false awakening – those dreams where you imagine waking up, and realize something’s wrong when everything is bright, heightened, and altogether destructible. Jonny Greenwood’s score straddles the line between lush instrumentation and sharp stabs of discomfort. Like the script, it takes a chaste surface and dares us to piece together the more eccentric notions of how Alma desires to tame Reynolds’ harsh proclivities.
One scene demonstrates this character dynamic more efficiently than any other. Insisting on complete silence during breakfast, Reynolds grows irate when Alma butters her toast loudly. Her knife cuts through the cold butter, smacking onto the porcelain dish. She scrapes it across the bread with multiple piercing strokes, and then gnashes her teeth while eating it. It’s the most outwardly accessible sign of Phantom Thread as a five-sense experience. Anderson’s direction renders the film as inviting as can be from the outset, but whips us into a deliberate rhythm that grows with exponential speed by the third act. Through meticulous set design and a ravishing visual palette, dynamite performances are brought to life in a world covered in glamour, but still one with room for these complex entities. It’s a wild examination of interrupted and recalibrated interpersonal relationships, concealed under the cover of a lavish costume drama.