With the Phantom Thread, one of the film industry’s premier talents has further proven his ability to create a uniquely confounding, dense, and singular work. Initially it appears to be a have the trappings of a love story. But as the warning signs compound, and the hidden inclinations of our leads begin to surface, we come to realize that their relationship is both complex, and thoroughly weird.
Taking place in post-WW2 London, Phantom Thread begins when a renowned dress maker named Reynolds Woodcock, played by Daniel Day Lewis, courts his new love Alma. Anderson has once again created a film filled with characters that simultaneously feel larger than life and intricately human.
Unsurprisingly Day Lewis’ performance fits this description, but his co-star Vicky Krieps matches him blow for blow, handily standing her ground against one of the most renowned living actors. Considering that Lewis learned how to sew a Balenciaga sheath dress from scratch for the purpose of his method acting, this is no small feat.
And it’s important that she does, as Phantom Thread is largely about the cost of toxic masculinity. Instead of just being another story in which a woman is victimized, Alma refuses to bow to Reynold’s increasing callousness, resulting in a escalating tension between the two that eventually explodes into outright insanity.
Similar to how There Will be Blood’s characters felt symbolic of broader ideas, Reynolds feels like a representation of the extemes of the male ego. He treats his lovers like dolls, dressing them up and warping their every inclination to his tastes. He uses his power imbalance to keep them submissive, and when he grows tired of them, he moves on to the next victim. As the Me Too movement reaches a fever pitch, it’s hard to imagine a film that better encapsulates the nature of these power imbalances that leads to manipulation, bullying, and the mistreatment of woman in Hollywood and elsewhere.
While the comparisons to There Will Be Blood are certainly well-founded, this film is much more willing to poke fun at the absurdity of its protagonist. To capture the silliness of his constant agitation, there is a scene where the foley work for eating toast is translated into an auditory assault to capture his sense of paltry annoyance. Similarly, there are also many moments of visual humor to capture Reynold’s eccentricity.
The changes in mood and highs and lows of their relationship are represented by the compositions as well as the actors. A romantic medium shot painted against a moody bluff, our protagonists filling the frame with their affections for one another. Tension filled breakfast and dinner scenes that turn increasingly sinister, their faces in full frame to broadcast every subtle turn of the conversation or the silent tension.
And all the while Johnny Greenwood’s soundtrack provides a consistent barrage of strings and brass, which compliment the peaks and valleys of our characters, wrapping the picture in an air of sinister bourgeoisie.
Paul Thomas Anderson movies, especially the contemporary ones, all lend themselves to a certain ambiguity that invites multiple viewings and readings. (I’m still trying to wrap my head around the ending) It’s hard not be swept up in the well-articulated strife of this relationship. It feels as though we are in the hands of a seasoned master who is at the height of his craft, capturing every granular detail necessary to convey his vision. While it could be largely described as a chamber drama, it demands to be seen on the big screen due to the grandeur of many of its compositions and moments.
Image credit: https://filmschoolrejects.com/phantom-thread-trailer/