After the willfully obtuse ‘The Master’ and the deliberately convoluted ‘Inherent Vice’, writer/director/genius Paul Thomas Anderson has returned with a surprisingly straightforward cinematic effort in ‘Phantom Thread’. Of course, PTA being PTA, his version of straightforward is still meticulously constructed and mysterious.
The movie deliberately leads you down a certain path for a certain type of story, then proves to be the opposite of expectations. It’s another love story from the guy who brought you ‘Punch Drunk Love’, and it’s just as odd and unconventional in its exploration of that theme.
Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Reynolds Woodcock, a legendary fashion designer in 1950s London. His working methods are intense in their obsessive focus and sense of ritual. He lives a life of meticulous routine, his quietly calm demeanor thrown off by even the slightest imbalance in the world he’s created. Lesley Manville co-stars as his partner, Cyril. (She’s magnificent in the steely supporting role.) Her job is to keep Woodcock’s insular universe untouched. That often means disposing of the women he picks up to be a model/muse/lover whenever he tires of the latest conquest.
After dismissing Reynolds’ most recent lady, Cyril sends him off to a country retreat to recover from his latest fashion triumph. Barely a few minutes into his vacation, Woodcock is instantly enamored with his waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps), pulling her into his life by the end of the meal and slotting her into his empty model/muse/lover chamber. However, Alma isn’t quite as complacent as those who have previously filled the role. She loves Reynolds and his genius, but isn’t content to be another cog in his machine. As you might expect, that causes quite a bit of ruckus in his rigidly controlled world.
For the first half or so, ‘Phantom Thread’ is very much a film about obsession. We see a man whose life is driven entirely by his obsessions and whose art (in this case fashion) is impressive enough that he’s able to surround himself with enablers. Anderson crafts his picture with a similar level of obsession over detail as his subject. That’s nothing new. It’s how PTA works, but this movie has an amusing level of self-consciousness. We see Anderson and his filmmaking team obsessively fuss over a man who embodies obsessive fussiness. At times, the audience is subjectively slotted into his headspace, feeling every deviance from routine like a shot to the heart (especially when it comes to noises at breakfast). Other times, Anderson’s beautifully employed camera sits back and observes the madness at arm’s length.
Daniel Day-Lewis is equally obsessive in his own work as an actor, which fits the theme beautifully. He disappears completely into the role, as is his method. His performance and characterization have remarkable control and subtlety that’s far removed from the uncorked rage and madness in his previous collaboration with Anderson, ‘There Will Be Blood’. Of course, the calm is a façade. Any disruptions to the dressmaker’s equilibrium result in bursts of rage (some loud, most passive-aggressive). The director and the actor are exploring a theme they know all too well as artists. They collaborated in creating the character and story. There’s uncomfortable honesty in their depiction of obsession that’s both disturbing and frequently darkly funny. It’s a stretch to call ‘Phantom Thread’ a comedy, but laughs do pop up regularly. They’re uncomfortable laughs, though, the type that squeak out in self-defense and sting.
Vicky Krieps’ Alma disrupts all this. She waltzes into the film and slowly refuses to play the role that Reynolds assigns her. This leads to plenty of conflict, passive-aggression and dark comedy. Reynolds becomes obsessed with her and she with him, but the relationship is toxic. Intense tension builds at all times regarding how and why everything will go wrong. Anderson relishes that tension, playing into it and making viewers nauseous as we come to fear and expect the worst. In 2017, there’s only one way to read the story. It feels like the tale of a narcissistic misogynist fashion designer who views women only as objects to sling his clothes on. The fable must end badly as the quiet man is revealed to be a monster.
But that’s not at all where Anderson goes. He ends up somewhere totally different, somewhere almost inexplicably romantic. In some ways, ‘Phantom Thread’ is a long setup to one big sick joke filled with irony and layers of meaning. This isn’t a story of men destroying women. It’s one of the most perverse love stories ever created. Like all great movies, many readings and interpretations are possible to read into ‘Phantom Thread’. However, unlike the last few P.T. Anderson projects, it feels like the filmmaker has a very specific message in mind this time. It’s not the movie that most will expect, even while they’re watching the first 90 minutes unfold. It’s a better movie than that, both more meaningful and more complicated.
‘Phantom Thread’ is more Paul Thomas Anderson’s companion piece to ‘Punch Drunk Love’, not the companion piece to ‘There Will Be Blood’ that it appears to be on the surface. To pull off the bizarre magic trick of ‘Phantom Thread’ is just further proof that Anderson is the finest filmmaker of his generation. It will benefit from many viewings, which is a good thing because waiting for the next P.T. Anderson movie always takes too damn long. At least he gives us movies worth studying and obsessing over in between those long waits.