2017, R, 130 min. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Jan. 12, 2018
A new Paul Thomas Anderson film should be a major event, and not just on film Twitter. The muted anticipation of Phantom Thread – Anderson’s eighth film, and his first since 2015’s underloved (not by me!), capering Inherent Vice – surely has something to do with the distributor’s chintzy awards season campaign and questionable decision to delay wide release to 2018. Still, I have a pet conspiracy theory: that the notable lack of frothing at the mouth that traditionally greets a PTA film has something to do with gender. (What isn’t about gender these days?) "Meaty." "Muscular." These are the kinds of words typically tossed around about Anderson’s films, which themselves are typically built around a man – a gumshoe, a cult religion godhead – and/or set in male-dominated fields – oil, porn. It’s perversely amusing to imagine a certain strain of PTA fans clutching their pearls at the first trailer for Phantom Thread, a 1950s-set domestic psychodrama about a couture designer and his lady muse. It looked an awful lot like, well, a women’s picture.
Turns out Phantom Thread is plenty muscular, even with all those pretty, swishy skirts. You’d be hard-pressed to find a steelier spine than that of Vicky Krieps, at least. She’s the Luxembourgian breakout who goes toe-to-toe with actor laureate Daniel Day-Lewis in what he swears will be his last film role. They could both comfortably retire on the strength of their titanic performances here alone.
Krieps plays Alma, a shy immigrant waitress pulled into the orbit of Day-Lewis’ Reynolds Woodcock, London’s star dressmaker, and his spinster sister Cyril (Manville), the right hand and sometimes-heavy who manages Reynolds’ affairs and even dumps his girlfriends for him. By the end of her first date with Reynolds, Alma is stripped down to her slip – not for sex, but industry. He’s measuring her for a dress. Alma glows at the attention; she’s too aroused to notice his hands move over her like she’s a dress form. But Cyril gets it. When she enters the room, she territorially sniffs the air, an alpha startled at the foreign smell in her den.
A Gothic romance with intentional shades of du Maurier’s Rebecca, Phantom Thread at first seems to pitch Alma as a shrinking violet uprooted to a kind of Manderley – the intensely cloistered House of Woodcock, its impenetrable unit of brother and sister. But back to that spine: Alma has spunk, and a fighting spirit. Reynolds may initially be enchanted by her clumsiness and seeming malleability – that’s what gets her a seat at the table – but once installed, she pushes for more, to be not just muse but also collaborator, and caretaker. When Reynolds pulls back, she finds a different soft spot to push on. The magnificent tension of the film lies in how Alma negotiates that push/pull, and what extremes she goes to – snuggled, or smuggled, in dulcet tones – to even the power dynamic.
That sleight-of-hand infiltrates the whole movie. Sumptuously dressed in Jonny Greenwood’s era-callback piano score, the exactingly composed frames, and so many divine costume designs by Mark Bridges, it takes a while to catch on that Phantom Thread is Anderson’s most playful and most kinky movie to date – a Molotov cocktail gift-wrapped in taffeta and lace. It is also, not paradoxically, a dead-serious exploration of the act of artistic creation, the essential role a romantic partner plays in that creation, and the toll that subordination to another’s craft takes. (Anderson dedicates the film to his longtime partner Maya Rudolph and their children.) That topic has certainly been batted around before on film – auteurs do so love splaying their emotional guts on the screen in shadow plays of life-begets-art – but what sets Phantom Thread apart is that it isn’t an apologia, or an exorcism. It’s a Valentine. The heart, after all, is our strongest muscle.