"Reynolds has made my dreams come true, and I have given him what he desires most in return; every piece of me."
There’s a beautiful re-watchable nature to all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies. They are in films in which I feel like I could explore endlessly, and always garner something new from them every time I revisit one. Not only that, but the more aware you become of what Anderson is trying to say with each specific film he makes, the more you realise just how masterfully he executes those intentions. For that reason it is hard to say exactly where ‘Phantom Thread’ ranks among his filmography after just one viewing, but what I know for sure is that based on my first impression Anderson has another masterpiece to his name.
In 1950s London, renowned dress maker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis) and his sister Cyril (Leslie Manville) are at the centre of British fashion, designing and shaping dresses that are praised as magnificent works of art. When Reynolds meets a young waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps) she becomes a fixation for his obsession and slowly becomes drawn into a fierce battle of wills regarding artistry and subject.
For the past few years PTA has been growing decidedly more experimental with the structure of each film he makes, reaching a high point with the incoherent ‘Inherent Vice’. But ‘Phantom Thread’ subverts that pattern, being more linear in terms of structure, narrative and pacing. However, in doing so PTA has interwoven such brilliant themes into the movie and focussed in on the nuances of his characters that allows the viewer to become intimately familiar with them and their motivations. Much like ‘The Master’, PTA’s latest is first and foremost a character study, one that is both deeply fascinated and deeply empathetic towards its flawed characters.
The movie’s opening scenes instantly familiarise the viewer with Reynolds’ daily routine and identity. We become acutely aware of his he operates and views the world around him. Much like the dresses he makes, the world comes in a sweeping and constant pattern of which the design choices may change but the interwoven technique remains the same. That is, until certain narrative beats in the film’s story start to take, and when they do we feel as usurped as Reynolds does. PTA so brilliantly establishes the key characteristics and activities of Reynolds so that when the movie does take an unexpected turn it feels all the more surprising as a result.
Unlike any other PTA movie I’ve seen though, the twists in ‘Phantom Thread’ creep up on the viewer with almost malicious intent. The luscious world we are introduced to isn’t pulled out from under us, but rather slowly manoeuvred away in a masterful display of tonal balance and nuanced pacing. The changes in the narrative of ‘Phantom Thread’ feel shocking, but never jarring. It allows the movie to be immensely subversive and provoking. There are so many prior elements to the movie that are cast in a different light once certain revelations unfold, so much so that you’ll likely want to watch it all over again instantly.
Another aspect I adore of PTA’s movies is his ability to address the full spectrum of human emotions and ‘Phantom Thread’ is no different. The movie can be frighteningly sinister at times, but also highly comedic in a subtle way. These various moods never feel at odds with one another, but rather complement the film as a whole. It’s not just one endless atmosphere but a plethora of engaging moods and emotions both expressed by the characters and projected from them. Even when the script is bringing forward some of its deepest and darkest themes, it still finds way to weave some subtle character humour into proceedings. In fact there’s an argument to be made that how humorous the movie is depends upon your outlook, I could easily imagine a different viewer finding some of the moments I found comedic to be disturbing and vice versa.
Those themes in question are weighty to say the least. PTA uses ‘Phantom Thread’ as a means to address artistry, obsession, control, objectification, privilege and dozens of other interlinked ideas that will probably seem more prevalent once I have a chance to revisit the film. But even on the first viewing I can tell that PTA is unpacking a lot of material here. His study of characters and his study of theme are also perfectly in tune, as in the film never feels like it’s side-lining one to take way for the other. They both unfold and develop at exactly the same pace.
While the core of the film is fascinating, the way it’s packaged and executed is exceptional. Though there is no credited cinematographer PTA reportedly shot the film himself with the assistance of several visual consultants, and the result is impeccable. The framing and composition never puts a foot wrong, making the film engaging and involving before a word has even been spoken. Jonny Greenwood’s accompanying score is also phenomenal, complementing and contrasting with the film itself to create an impression I haven’t score achieve in a long time.
Of course, a large part of the focus on ‘Phantom Thread’ is that it apparently represents Daniel Day Lewis’ last role on the big screen. If that is indeed true then ‘Phantom Thread’ would be a fine farewell. Anyone expecting a scenery chewing performance akin to that of Lewis’ last collaboration with PTA ‘There Will Be Blood’ may be surprised. Lewis isn’t the kind of actor who will repeat himself and in portraying Reynolds he has created a character with much more nuance and restraint. His performance is measured and often invites the viewer to try and uncover Reynolds motivations and emotions. It’s a performance that draws the viewer in but then remains ambiguous over the exact details of the characters inner state.
But ‘Phantom Thread’ is as much a battle of wills as it is a singular character study. Leslie Manville is exceptional as Reynolds iron willed sister, as is Vicky Krieps as Reynolds new muse. She enters the movie in a seemingly vulnerable and naïve state only to draw in such strong determination that it’s as shocking to the viewer as it is gratifying, and the ensuing conflict that comes from these three key personalities interacting is some of the best cinema you’ll see all year. To see these various components in such perfect working order to bring an artist’s vision to life is a unique thing to witness, and ‘Phantom Thread’ is a prime example of the kind of filmmaking that is truly extraordinary.
Exquisitely assembled, thematically rich and spanning the full range of emotions from light hearted humour to sheer philological terror, ‘Phantom Thread’ is another masterwork from cinema’s finest modern auteur.