Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2017) 3 out of 4 stars.
Like, love or hate his movies, Paul Thomas Anderson is a filmmaker of uncompromising vision. Whether chronicling the porn industry in 1970s Hollywood (Boogie Nights), profiling the romantic misadventures of a man with anger-control issues (Punch-Drunk Love), plunging into the violent world of oil drilling inearly 20th-century America (There Will Be Blood), or crafting a sharp critique of Scientology (The Master), Anderson is always meticulous in his mise-en-scène and perfect in his command of performance. Narratively, he is attracted to hubris, sin and redemption, topics that he treats with varying degrees of profundity. I may not always like his scripts, but I always admire his craft.
Now, in Phantom Thread, set in the fashion world of 1950s London, Anderson sets out to tell the tale of one Reynolds Woodcock, a successful dress designer working in partnership with his sister, Cyril. He’s at the top of his game and proud of it. A good-looking, if fussy, man approaching the end of middle age, he prefers the life of a bachelor, even when there is a woman (other than his sister) in his life. In fact, in his ideal universe, such a woman would be a model first, a lover second. As the film begins, he is in the process of discarding his current paramour. Her need for affection gets in the way of his dressmaking, and he brooks no compromise in his work ethic. “I have no time for confrontation.” he tells her, “I need the courage to deliver a dress.” So, a major commission completed, Reynolds heads off to the country for some rural respite.
There, he meets Alma, a waitress in a restaurant with a tall, gangly body to which he takes an instant liking. “You have no breasts; you’re perfect,” he says, and thus is a new match begun. Though Alma is surprised when what she thought was a date turns into a pinning and measurement session, into which Cyril walks and starts taking notes, she goes with the flow. Reynolds represents, after all, a high-end world to which she would otherwise have no access. But she is also attracted to him, and a deep romantic. She thinks she can tame him. The stage is set for a battle of wills.
So whence the “phantom”? There is one, yes, though she is as much metaphorical as real. Reynolds, it seems, idolized his mother. Or rather, he was in awe of her. She must have been stern, given the emotionally withdrawn children she bequeathed to the world. Perhaps abusive, as well. From her, Reynolds learned his craft, and maybe his trick of always sewing a hidden phrase on the inside of his creations, as well. Given the codependency of the siblings – “Cyril is right; Cyril is always right,” Reynolds tells Alma, even while seeming to deny Cyril much agency beyond their design firm – perhaps it all began with dear old mom. Into this fraught, repressed mix comes Alma, the opposite of the Woodcocks, with emotions ever roiling. For the second hour, Phantom Thread devotes its narrative to an exploration of this evolving new codependency, where love and abuse intermingle. Hubris, sin and redemption, once more.
Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln) plays Reynolds, and is his usual excellent self, here both charming and very, very cold. Lesley Manville (Another Year), as Cyril, is his equal in frigidity, though with a sly, knowing look in her eye. Luxembourgish actress Vicky Krieps (The Young Karl Marx) – whom I had never seen before – more than holds her own against these two titans of the stage and screen. She has the most expressive blush, which contrasts nicely with her bloodless would-be antagonists.
Ultimately, however, the movie left me as frosty as the Woodcocks, though I very much enjoyed watching the battle between the leads. Once I figured out that fashion was merely the backdrop to a tale of dominance and submission, the game became more fun, though Anderson’s scripts tend to devolve into schematics. He is often more interested in what his characters represent than in who they are as real people (which was my main issue with The Master). Here, there’s a certain playfulness that saves the movie from its worst excesses. All in all, it’s an expert production, full of witty lines (“I love you, but for now, I’m hungry” or “Kiss me, my girl, before I’m sick”), expert camerawork and superlative production design (not to mention beautiful dresses), and well worth watching and savoring.