“Chic? Oh, don’t you start using that filthy little word, chic! Whoever invented that ought to be spanked in public. I don’t even know what that word means! What is that word? Fucking chic! They should be hung, drawn, and quartered. Fucking chic.”
– Reynolds Woodcock
I’ve had Phantom Thread sitting with me for well over 72 hours now. In that time I must have started this review with six or seven new opening paragraphs, and an endless stream of takes of the feature, but none of the pieces seemed to organically fit. Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest boarders on defying review, because a review is simply a one sided examination, and Phantom Thread is a cinematic experience requiring conversation over a well prepared meal and late night cups of coffee. It isn’t as simple as deciding if the latest Marvel release by Disney contained enough of a balance between new invention and fan service. Anderson is an artist and this is very much his latest installation to a growing collection, deserving of relaxed contemplation rather than rushed opinion. So this will be less of a review and more a take away.
In Phantom Thread Daniel Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, the most sought after dressmaker in high end fashion. Designs by the House of Woodcocks are the envy of every woman forced to look at them but never feel the designers fabrics against their skin. They don’t get to feel his eyes cascade over them as he takes their measurements, never hear the questions escape his lips to discover the personal details he will place into every sketch, every stitch. Every decision decided through intimate knowledge of the subject, yet never the craftsman. Just how he likes it, his own creation of monastic order.
This is a dynamic that has built his empire. As a child he had learned from watching his mother, finding equal passion in the private craft. No doubt a key component to his long established diligence for routine, which when disturbed turns him into a venomously oblivious scoundrel, suddenly lost to the world happening around him and allowing the building stress and expectations placed on his shoulders to lash out.
His few relationships are one seemingly built by relation, as is the case with his sister and the business end of their venture, Cyril (Leslie Manville). His repeat clientele whom he seemingly sees as nothing more than muses worthy of displaying his art in public settings. When it comes to relationships of the flesh, he tires easily, his facade of prestige fades almost as fast as his wrote and practiced stories he has perfected when in the pursuit of seduction. The notion of his private persona allowed an opportunity to be let free into the world and out of his control is fearful and potentially catastrophic to his brand. Instead he plays his games, has his fun, and allows his sister to show those that have long since stayed their welcome in his world the door. Until Alma (Vicky Krieps).
On a weekend getaway to his cottage following another successful delivery of his latest design and latest relationship reaching it’s conclusion, Reynolds sits in a quaint local luncheon, meeting the eyes of Alma, whom acts almost instantly like a fawn in headlight from his steel gaze and winning smile. Impossible to hide her blushing, she leaves the room and enters the kitchen. This is the moment. A man consumed with his craft is suddenly met with unshakable disruption. He just doesn’t know it yet.
Let’s get it right out of the way, Phantom Thread is going to frustrate you as the end title card fades into view. it’s a love story with some semblance of genuine bite, where confusion and obsession go hand in hand. This is a story of complex and at times unlikeable characters slowly coming into focus and the world the create together feels disturbingly poetic in one of the most toxic onscreen relationships of recent memory.
Anderson is known for taking some influence from other filmmakers in his work, Scorsese, Altman, Huston. And he loves to subvert genre in things like Punch Drunk Love where the trope of the manchild is turned into something focused on the darker side. Inherent Vice is a detective story that has its lead typically falling ass backwards into new clues for two and a half hours. Of all his work, The Master might be the closest thing to what we could call a Paul Thomas Anderson film, with Phantom Thread very much declaring a place next to it on the mantle. In many ways this feels like Anderson making something close to a Stanley Donen film, where I couldn’t help but feel echoes of the MGM legend in the more elaborate set ups on display during the 70mm presentation. Texture, colors, vivid details that pop right off the screen. Narratively speaking it feels a lot like Donen’s Funny Face put through a new lens, in a new time, with much deeper characters.
There was a point during Phantom Thread that I resigned myself to accepting the fact that it wasn’t made with any interest in being reviewed. This isn’t a subject asking for appraisal. At the very start of the picture, a series of seamstresses ascend the staircase of their place of work, adorning themselves with pristine white work coats, reach for their latest assignment and begin meticulously working their garments. This is a routine designed, and a workplace ethic instilled by, a visionary. This is a story that wants contemplation from its spectators.
Upon it’s release, The Master was met with a very divided audience. Leading up to the release of the film, it’s very tight lipped production lead many to begin weighing it against the movie they had begun to spin in their head at the thought of Paul Thomas Anderson taking his narrative poise on display in There Will Be Blood and follow that career high with a subversive aim at Scientology. Only it wasn’t that movie everyone was building in their head, it was a very conflicting romance film between two broken men hungry for purpose.
Phantom Thread is very likely to be viewed in a similar light by those who have heard the news about Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis teaming up again to tell a story about the fashion industry in the 1950s, with Megan Ellison, everyone’s favorite rising producer, in toe. Nobody was expecting this team to come out with what could likely be described as a comedy of manners with dark undertones which eventually shifts into a romantic thriller in the vein of Rebecca. Walking away now knowing what to expect, I can’t wait to catch this one on the silver screen again very soon. It may not be perfect, or chic, but it sure will be remembered.
Tags: Daniel Day-Lewis, Leslie Manville, Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread, Vicky Krieps