There’s much to admire in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, though I’m admittedly less high on it than many folks. But it lands in a precarious position of being a movie that, while I appreciated and enjoyed certain aspects, outside of hardcore cinephiles, I can’t think of a single person to whom I can recommend this and reasonably expect them like what they see.
For his latest, Anderson puts a spin on one narrative I’m about fucking done with: ornery genius uses the fact that he’s a genius to treat everyone around him, especially the women in his life, like utter trash. I don’t think it’s quite as subversive a take on the frustrating and now-threadbare plot as it thinks it is, or as many others appear to believe, but I’ll give him points for the attempt to change the perspective and power dynamics.
Celebrated dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a character name that will never not make me laugh—PTA has said it began as an in-joke between himself and the actor—is the toast of 1950s London. His fastidious creations adorn the highest of high society. And he’s also a total prat. Smug and wholly self-absorbed, he leaves a string of women behind who he romances, moves in, and when he tires of them, essentially ignores their presence until they get fed up and leave. That is until he has a meet-cute with Alma (Vicky Krieps), an earnest young waitress who has way more of a spine, and much less interest in his celebrity, than most of the women he encounters. (He also orders a heart attack’s worth of food for breakfast, it’s impressive.) This coupling, of course, changes everything for both Reynolds and Alma and his neatly tailored life unravels at the seams.
Everyone is losing their damn minds over Daniel Day-Lewis, fawning over the retiring star—he claims Phantom Thread is his last film. Honestly, I find him overwrought to the point of distraction—I get it, I get it, the character is smarmy and affected and full of himself, but DDL also tips frightfully near those areas himself. It’s the kind of performance that screams pay attention to me; he practically winks at the audience. People love the shit out of it, though.
But to be fair, he only gives the third best performance in the movie. Vicky Krieps simply owns every moment she appears on screen, entirely overshadowing her vaunted co-star. She’s charming and earnest, a bit overwhelmed by this new world she finds herself inhabiting, but never out of her depth or afraid to go toe-to-toe with Reynolds. She’s a delight and a revelation and comes across as fresh and natural compared to Day-Lewis’ stuffy pretense and obvious machinations.
And I can barely begin to explain how much I adore Lesley Manville in this movie. She plays Reynolds’ long-suffering right hand, Cyril. The consigliere, the one who makes things run. Reynolds Woodcock is busy being a genius, so Cyril quietly, stoically, takes care of business. She’s the one who ultimately cleans up his romantic ruination, and she, too, is about done with it. With a straight, acetic face that belies running emotion below, she gives a sharp, I’m-sick-of-your-shit turn. Even buried beneath composed exteriors, her affection and compassion for Reynolds, and eventually Alma, shines through. It’s a subtle performance that creeps up and devastates.
While the story sounds relatively simple and straightforward, and in many respects it is, Phantom Thread is a movie that eschews easy categorization. At times overly droll and somber, hints of joyful romantic comedy waft throughout; not particularly a crime thriller (okay, sort of, it’s hard to explain without spoilers), it’s full of Hitchockian flourishes. PTA is on record calling Phantom Thread his Vertigo. This seems an odd analogy on the surface, though thematically, aesthetically, and mood wise, it’s an apt parallel, but in less flagrant ways than when a film usually garners comparisons to the Master of Suspense.
Without the services of frequent collaborator, Robert Elswit, Anderson served as his own cinematographer—though he refused sole credit, claiming it was a team effort. His usual meticulous framing and purposeful camera moves are once again on full display. Though while gorgeous at times, it turns bland and pedestrian at others. Much of the action takes place in the Woodcock home, a tall, narrow London flat where coiling staircases form visual motif. An often repeated visual motif. But not one where revisiting a familiar moment adds thematic weight or narrative insight, one where repeat visits become repetitive.
The score from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, another frequent PTA accomplice, permeates Phantom Thread—it’s reportedly in 90 of 130 minutes. As the relationship between Alma and Reynolds moves and evolves, so, too, does the music. Working with a 60-piece orchestra, he mixes starchy chamber music, classical beats, soaring strings, and jazz riffs to drive the narrative and underscore the drama. It perfectly matches and enhances what appears on screen and stands as one of the year’s best.
Phantom Thread is a frustrating movie to dissect. There’s a great deal I admire and enjoy, but there’s much I don’t. At times, its self-important and in love with it’s own inflated brilliance; it can be stodgy and smug and distant, a reflection of its protagonist, some of which is intentional, some not so much. Other times, it’s lovely and sweet and inviting; and the romance definitely takes at least one quite unexpected path. It’s deep and rich at the same time it’s empty and vapid. Daniel Day-Lewis has been drastically overhyped, while Vicky Krieps and Lesley Manville have most certainly not.
Phantom Thread certainly sticks with the viewer and offers much to digest. But like I said, despite what it offers, it’s hard to picture who I can recommend this to. It feels like a movie made for critical acclaim, which it’s received in droves, but without much of an audience beyond a specific niche. And that’s fine. Most of Anderson’s movies lack four-quadrant appeal; not every movie should appeal to everyone. But of his body of work, however, this is the most specific and closed off. [Grade: B]
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