Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Phantom Thread

Grade : A+ Year : 2017 Director : Paul Thomas Anderson Running Time : 2hr 10min Genre : ,
Movie review score

Once Paul Thomas Anderson really began to chart his own path as a writer/director is when he really began to click with me. I have made no bones in the past about how much I did not care for “Boogie Nights” or “Magnolia” when I first watched them, and my recent second viewing of “Boogie Nights” didn’t really change my mind about that film. With “Punch-Drunk Love,” however, he began to really click for me, and since then, his work has plucked a string with me that hums long after I’ve watched his latest film. (I do still need to catch up with 2014’s “Inherent Vice,” however.) I was worried that “Phantom Thread” would bore me, but by this point, I should probably put some trust in PT Anderson to create a film that shakes me away from how I might feel about the subject going in, and realize that he’s going to find a way to engross me completely. Next to his 2007 masterpiece, “There Will Be Blood,” this might be his finest film to date. It will certainly be a tough act to follow for him.

One of the reasons Anderson’s films started to work for me is because he sharpened his focus. There’s ambitious and confidence abound in “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia,” but “Boogie Nights” tries to tell too many stories at once, and some stories in “Magnolia” are more interesting than others. Starting with “Punch-Drunk,” he turned to character studies that honed in on individuals, and what made them tick, and the results have been fully engaging. Even when he widened the canvas, as he has since “There Will Be Blood,” his writing centered in on main characters that he found interest in, whether it was a lonely and bullied brother (“Punch-Drunk Love”); an amoral businessman (“There Will Be Blood”); an emotionally broken former soldier (“The Master”) or, in the case of “Phantom Thread,” a laser-focused dressmaker whose work is beloved, and his life is routine until he meets a young woman in a restaurant while on holiday. No story is the same, and each one has its own center of gravity because of the lead actor.

This is supposedly Daniel Day-Lewis’s final film, and he picked quite a note to go out on. He plays Reynolds Woodcock, a ’50s London dressmaker whose wears are the epitome of fashion for women around the world. We spend time getting to know him (as much as he wants people to know him) as he and his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), run the business, and have powerful women of all sorts show off Woodcock’s elegant designs. Needing a break, he goes to a small town, and is visually struck by Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress in a small restaurant. He strikes up a conversation with her, and they go to dinner, and back to the house he stays at. He is entranced by her beauty, and invites Cyril to the house to take her measurements. He takes her back to the city, puts her up in the house he lives (and works) in, and she becomes his muse. Early in the film, we see a breakfast between Reynolds and Cyril where we get the hint that Reynolds has a young woman who wants to love him, but he is not wired that way. It’s not long after Alma moves in that we get hints of the same thing happening here.

I can honestly say I did not expect this film to go in the direction it did, story-wise, and I think that’s one of the reasons PTA’s films in the past 15 years have hit me better than his earlier work. He is not telling stories with easy A-B-C plot developments, but films that are anchored in the emotional journeys of their characters, or lack there of, in the case of Daniel Plainview in “There Will Be Blood.” “Phantom Thread” is about the love and devotion a woman has for an artist who, by nature of his relationship to his art, does not love her in the same way, if at all. One reviewer likened it to Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” thematically, and that’s definitely a strong comparison, but the film I had rattling around in my head during this was Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” In particular, the second half of “Vertigo,” where Judy (Kim Novak) gives herself to the insistence Scottie (James Stewart) has in making her up like a dead woman he loved. I definitely felt a kinship between Woodcock and Scottie, and Alma and Judy, for some of the movie, but at a certain point in the story, Anderson has a far more unsettling narrative in mind for these two, and it pulls the film into a very different direction where the film turns into a struggle for control between Reynolds and Alma, with Cyril keeping close tabs on Alma.

In considering Anderson’s work, I think it almost makes sense that I view both “There Will Be Blood” and “Phantom Thread” at the top, because both of those stories have fuzzy senses of righteousness between the main characters, and I think that might be an area Anderson seems at home in. That both feature tremendous performances by Daniel Day-Lewis is not surprising, because a) he is a one-of-a-kind actor, and b) I think the roles Anderson wrote for him are richly layered views of single-minded obsession that almost are right at home with Day-Lewis’s approach to acting. The time he spent apprenticing as a cobbler in between stints acting make his performance as Woodcock here feel all the more believable as a man who studies fabric and makes sure everything is just right. This is a performance that is as rich and riveting as any he has ever given, and it is a sight to behold. Matching him every step of the way is Manville (which should come as no surprise for the veteran) and newcomer Krieps, who captures every nuance of Alma we come to watch in the film, and it is as good a performance as we’ve seen from any woman this year. The way we see her gradually make her way up to Woodcock’s level in terms of controlling their relationship, and how she matches wits with Day-Lewis, is worth seeing the film for alone.

This is a brilliant film from top-to-bottom from Anderson, not just in his writing and direction and the acting, but the technical side, as well. The costume design by Mark Bridges should just have its Oscar engraved right now, and the production design by Mark Tildesley is striking as witnessed by the cinematography (and lighting) by Anderson and Michael Bauman. And the score by Jonny Greenwood (who previously worked with PTA on “There Will Be Blood” and “The Master”) is a masterclass in classic film scoring that is a new high watermark for the composer. Everyone brings their A-game, and Anderson’s film is worth it in how he looks for hidden layers in a world where ambition takes many forms.

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