Phantom Thread: The Artistry and the Ecstasy

Directed and Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville, Gina McKee, Brian Gleeson, Julia Davis
Produced by: Paul Thomas Anderson, Megan Ellison, Daniel Lupi, JoAnne Sellar
Music by: Jonny Greenwood
Editing by: Dylan Tichenor
Dedicated to: Jonathan Demme
Nominated for 2 Golden Globe Awards – Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture (Drama) and Best Original Score – Motion Picture (2018)

The term “artisan” has been so manhandled and misapplied to everything from avocado toasts to lavender soap that it no longer has true value. Yet there is a paradox in this overuse: because we abuse that word, we seem widely to have forgotten the import of artisans themselves.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s films – much like Wes Anderson’s, which, along with the shared last name, explain why the two are often confused for one another – are built on the backs of skilled craftspeople. They pivot so perilously on the accomplishments of what our industry (humiliatingly) describes as “below-the-line” crew members that their contributions are ultimately forgotten.

Here’s another paradox: because PTA works so closely and so exactingly with the best cinematographers, casting directors, editors, production designers, and costume designers in the business, their collective contributions to his films become mostly invisible.

In Anderson’s new movie, Phantom Thread, which Focus Features is opening in wide release around the country on January 19, 2018, the below-the-line work is as impossible to ignore as it has been since There Will Be Blood. In fact, the film represents the most perfect synthesis between director and crew – artists and tradespeople, authorship and collaboration – in his catalog.

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As you may have read amidst the hubbub, Phantom Thread traces a few busy years in the life of the dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock, played by Daniel Day-Lewis in what may be his final role. Those weighing Mr. Day-Lewis’s personal decisions against his professional choices can rest easy: if he is leaving us, his adoring public, it is with a fully-realized and mastered character none less sophisticated (or dangerous) than Daniel Plainview, Bill the Butcher, or Christy Brown.

Woodcock is a control freak of magnificent impatience, a savagely Type A couturier to the stars. Warped by childhood grief over the death of his mother, he lives a bachelor’s life in a well-adorned manse with his sister, Cyril (the impeccable Lesley Manville.) Lovers come and go – often dismissed with a shit-eating grin by Cyril – but Woodcock’s stable of loyal assistants returns every day.

Hunched together over tables of fabric and measuring tools, they resemble a film crew in the early stages of production. Their little cinema-family is disrupted, however, by Alma Elson, a server at a country inn with whom Reynolds becomes smitten. Within what feels like days, Alma is living at Woodcock’s manor and modeling his dresses with an ironic burgundy smirk.

Elson is played by Vicky Krieps, an actor new to me personally but soon to be known to a great many – she is a spectacular talent, a gale force, and sure to be heavily courted by international filmmakers. Alma is Reynolds’s equal in self-esteem but a terror in her chaos: passionate, somewhat messy, and entirely untameable. She is everything his cold composure rejects.

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Naturally, theirs is an immediately tense partnership, a battle-of-the-wills rife with microaggressions. Anderson, who wrote the script in close contact with his actors, milks their enmity for squirrelly laughs, but I fear only the nastiest audiences will be amused. Those of us that fit that bill will recognize in Krieps’s and Manville’s performances a hilarious, balletic duet of snide comic timing; others may need some pre-screening trigger warnings.

Regardless of its reception – which has been respectable but lackluster by awards season standards – the script is one of Anderson’s funniest, and I say that as someone who adored Inherent Vice. From the intentionally silly name of its protagonist (say it with me: Woodcock) to Cyril’s increasingly vicious advice, we are given more leeway to chuckle than felt appropriate in TWBB or The Master, despite elements of dark humor in both.

Indeed, this new work is a comedy of manners, so pleasantly tasteful and conscientious in its cinematic etiquette that it becomes in part a parody of its setting: London in the 1950s. Again, the word “perfect” comes to mind in describing the crew’s facsimile of the period.

The costumes by Mark Bridges have drawn the most significant personal praise and made of Bridges, a long-time collaborator of Anderson’s who was Oscar-nominated for his work on Inherent Vice (he also won, for The Artist, in 2011), a minor celebrity. His designs gird the film with their beauty.

There is nothing laughable about the Woodcock dresses, except, maybe, for how they fit their wearers (among them Gina McKee, Julia Davis, and Lujza Richter as the charmed Princess Mona Braganza). It would therefore be an embarrassing disaster for him not to receive another nomination at least.

Then there are the gorgeous locations, selected for their contrapuntal visuals and for the ease of production designing within them. Anderson and Day-Lewis have both spoken of the crushing claustrophobia they endured living in their production house, while the cottage Woodcock stays at in the country is close to the sea, spacious and unending.

In a similar moment, a New Year’s Eve party highlighted in the film’s trailer takes place in a cavernous meeting hall, while elsewhere Reynolds is being sandwiched by a narrow doorframe.

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The director and editor Dylan Tichenor play with these diametrically opposed types of spaces in a clever cinematic feng shui. Even Anderson’s script replays a sequence of events: Alma and Reynolds become smitten with one another, then bicker, then act out.

In essence, the whole film is a collection of doubles and triples, an abundance of alter-egos and juxtapositions.

That is bound to discombobulate some people, of course; and as far as I can tell, this is what has kept the film’s artistry from being justly recognized.

I have another theory, though, more closely related to tone. Phantom Thread is Anderson’s softest and most elegant film since Punch-Drunk Love, with none of the brutal edges of his deadlier dramas. Even scenes of tremendous tension here are captured in an amber light (Anderson served as his own cinematographer), as if in a Victorian romance.

And Day-Lewis and Krieps, despite the great conflict between them, ultimately look as devoted companions should: inseparable, compassionate, present.

We are seeing a comedy, then, in which true love can be earned and happiness is not a farce. Anderson’s most fairweather fans – the brooding Nietzschean masculinists, the art-house-y goofballs – will be equally baffled by the profundity of this message. Thankfully, no American filmmaker seems to care less what anyone else expects from him than this one.

Focus Features

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One response to “Phantom Thread: The Artistry and the Ecstasy

  1. Pingback: The Young Karl Marx (2018) Film Review | CineMalin: Film Commentary and Criticism·

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