Film review: Phantom Tread

Phantom Thread is Paul Thomas Anderson’s most recent film, starring Daniel Day-Lewis in his supposedly final role. Set in the London couture world of the 1950’s, it follows the turbulent romance of Reynolds Woodcock (Lewis), an obsessive fashion designer, and his muse and lover Alma (Vicky Krieps). Like the dresses Woodcock’s sewers meticulously craft, Phantom Thread is a work of fine beauty.

The first thing to notice is the atmosphere. The cinematography is, as one would expect of an Anderson feature, elegant and gorgeous. The camera seems to float through the various living rooms, sewing rooms, and spiral staircases in the Woodcock mansion. Or, in one incredible scene, it is fixed to the back of Woodcock’s car as he drives through the English countryside. Jonny Greenwood’s lyrical soundtrack plays in the background for nearly the entirety of the first 30 minutes, and for much of the rest of the film. Phantom Thread feels like a dream. As Mark Kermode has pointed out, Phantom Thread plays like a modern fairy tale, with its dresses and magic charms.

Rarely in film, and especially in dramas, are the aesthetic elements, image and sound, so masterfully composed as to be totally enjoyable on their own, despite plot. But, Phantom Thread’s aesthetic value is comparable to that of any art film. The simplicity of the film’s first act led me to believe that this would be the biggest compliment that I could pay it, but as the film progressed I realized that I was sorely mistaken. Phantom Thread is not only a beautiful movie, but a captivating drama.

Characters in Paul Thomas Anderson’s films never have simple (or healthy) relationships, a fact which becomes invariably more important as each film progresses. Consider Eddie and Maggie’s Oedipal romance in Boogie Nights and Daniel and H.W.’s abusive father-son relationship in There Will Be Blood. From a dramatic point-of-view, this is Anderson’s greatest skill as a filmmaker. His stories begin archetypal, but progress by subverting those very archetypes.

Phantom Thread follows this pattern. It is ostensibly a love story, but its perverse developments and sickly romantic ending lead us to reconsider love itself. In a Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross, Anderson is asked if he “sanctions” the actions Alma takes in order to get closer to Woodcock, and if he considers Alma and Woodcock’s relationship to be in any way “healthy.” Anderson responds that he is, “Groovy with love of all kinds.”

Anderson is not a psychologist, but a poet. If we are to appreciate Phantom Thread as a work of cinematic poetry, we must focus on the impression that it makes, and not on its underlying morality, which may very well be sick. We must not worry about justifying the beauty of Phantom Thread. Instead we should focus on appreciating it.

The film ends with a montage of Alma and Woodcock’s life together beyond the movie, and the multiple false endings within it create a sense of unending love and beauty. If this ove is unrealistic or even sick, it is at least beautiful. With Greenwood’s soundtrack in the background, it is reminiscent of the film’s beginning, creating a satisfying circular structure, at least aesthetically.

Lastly, it should be mentioned just how “funny” Phantom Thread is. Woodcock’s fussiness, and Alma’s waywardness, create a dynamic that is hilarious and adorable in its immaturity. Cyril, Woodcock’s deathly serious sister and business partner, also provides comic relief, as well as deep insight into either star. The stars act like two children, which may be why they are so likeable even when they do the most evil things.

So, Phantom Thread succeeds on all fronts. It is a feast for the senses and for the heart. I agree with Mark Kermode that it is, in fact, Paul Thomas Anderson’s greatest film yet.

★★★★ out of four

On Sunday night, Phantom Thread received one (for Best Costume Design) out of the six Academy Awards it was nominated for. It lost in the Best Picture and Best Director categories to The Shape of Water and its director Guillermo Del Toro, respectively. Though Phantom Thread deserved to win both, I am not totally unsatisfied with those results. The Shape of Water is a very good film, and Del Toro a talented director. Daniel Day-Lewis losing to Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour) in the Best Actor category, however, was incredibly disappointing.

Comments

  1. Margarete Lepine says:

    You have successfully enticed me to see this film.

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