Phantom Thread Features Stunning Performances


Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Annapurna Pictures, 170 minutes, R (solely for F-bombs)

There is true love, tough love, love among opposites, and love that dares not speak its name. The Phantom Thread isn’t any of these; it’s a love that obliterates the border between beauty and ugliness, logic and impulse, propriety and indecency, desire and contempt. You probably won’t like the people you meet in this film, but you won’t look away, as they are fascinating in their exoticism, anguish, and awfulness.

Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a 60s-something high couture dress designer whose perfection with a needle contrasts with the chaffed fingers that push it through the fabric; that is, underneath his dandy exterior lies a person with deep character flaws, including an obsession with his dead mother, a strain of cruelty, egoism, and the textbook symptoms of OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). Work defines his life and one of its more visible exterior markers is a string of brokenhearted model/partners—each of whom thought she would be the one to melt his defenses. Reynolds, though, is so inscrutable that he’s not even the one to inform them of his boredom and send them packing; that task goes to his spinster sister and business manager Cyril (Lesley Manville).

During one such incident, Reynolds absents himself and strolls into a tearoom in a fading Victorian seaside hotel. Enter Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps), a ruddy-cheeked and slightly klutzy waitress who quietly takes his eccentric order. She’s everything Reynolds is looking for, by which I mean to model his dresses, be his arm candy, and serve as his salon’s lady du jour. Sex isn’t what it’s about—that would, after all, be a distraction and a man who takes a temper tantrum and flees the room when toast is buttered too loudly doesn’t easily assume the role of torchy lover to a woman half his age. He is, though, very much up for things in which he is the center of attention: elegant dining, lording over his shop, and flattering matrons, glitterati, and princesses who buy his gowns.

The question is what’s in this for Alma. It’s easy to see why she’d find the wealth and glamour of the Woodcock salon preferable to waitressing, but why does she tolerate what is essentially an emotionally abusive relationship? I’ll only caution you to not rush to judgment about much of anything in this film. Don’t assume motives, power, or outcomes.

The Phantom Thread won’t be everyone’s favorite fabric, but there are some things that we must acclaim unembroidered truth. Daniel Day-Lewis has stated that this is his final film. More’s the pity. His was easily the best performance by an actor in a 2017 film and it would be a travesty were he not to collect his fourth Best Actor Oscar for his role as Woodcock, whom he plays as the damaged boy who would be tyrant. I used to think that Dustin Hoffman was the male Meryl Streep, the best actor of his generation. I was wrong; it’s Day-Lewis. His is a subtle performance that’s like a tsunami without waves or sound. Day-Lewis has the sort of depth as an actor that warrants mention in the same breath as Ben Kingsley, Ian McKellen, Anthony Hopkins, or Alec Guinness.

Lesley Manville certainly deserves serious consideration as Best Supporting Actress. She plays Cyril with all the potential danger of a slumbering lioness. Credit also goes to Vicky Krieps, an actress from Luxembourg who we will be seeing in more films. She’s as intriguing physically as she is psychologically. As Alma she is, at turns, luminous, stern, and borderline frumpy. Director Paul Thomas Anderson did his own cinematography, and he does a great job of capturing the feel of 1950s elegance as it reaches its apex and begins it slide out of fashion. When he catches it on the cusp, he does it so skillfully that the film feels timeless and it’s only the external clues that betray its era.

Ironically, I found Anderson’s camera work superior to his directorial and script writing roles. This film could/should have been PG-13, which would have been accomplished had he excised the F-bombs. It’s not that the word itself shocks anymore, rather that a polished, tightly wrapped character such as Reynolds would have resorted to less vulgar ways to express disgust, fear, or contempt. My suspicion is that Anderson wrote in such outbursts to add quickened interludes to the languid pacing of most of the film. I wish he had simply trusted the audience. This is a film in which we feel pain from a thousand needle pricks, not blunt force trauma.

Rob Weir

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