Film Review – Phantom Thread
The latest film from writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson opens with the tonal resonation of a ringing sound. Like a tuning fork being struck, the sound carries out, as if to reverberate throughout the remainder of the movie. Not quite a formal note and yet not quite abstract enough to be a formless thought. Seductive, twisted and hypnotic, Phantom Thread, like the sound that introduces it, is a movie vibrating outward, expressive and searching for space to exist in.
We are first introduced to Alma (Vicky Krieps), a woman seated in a fashionable chair telling a person seated across from her of her love for a man named Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis). Reynolds, accompanied by his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), is a fashion designer in 1950s, post-WWII England. Held in the highest regard by film stars and royalty alike, Reynolds and Cyril operate under the name the House of Woodcock. Reynolds is an utmost perfectionist with a rigid routine wholly designed around his artistic whims and idiosyncrasies. Cyril runs the business dealings and facilitates Reynolds’ lifestyle to accommodate his creative and romantic needs.
Reynolds is a self-confirmed bachelor, and while we are given only a small instance at the beginning of the film to validate this, it’s presented in such a manner as to indicate this is routine. Upon initial infatuation, Reynolds is inspired, turns his lust into a muse, moves her in with him and nearly surreptitiously discards her, via Cyril, when she begins to clash with his creative needs. It’s enough of an impression to suspect that when Reynolds meets Alma, who’s working as a server in a restaurant, that his infatuation with her will only go so far.
Alma, however, is not about to be treated in such a way and from their first date on projects both a defiance to convention and a commitment to Reynolds that cuts to the core of the film’s themes. This is utmost a love story between Alma and Reynolds that’s concerned with the dark, off-kilter ways love needs to contend with reality to persist past infatuation. If the cliché that dating a creative person is difficult then Reynolds is campaigning for the poster child of such sentiments. His mood swings are violent and his temperament crests with his annoyance at the common sounds his partners make, such as buttering toast and eating too loud. A disorder known as Misophonia, here a symptom of Reynolds’ personality.
Much like Anderson’s film The Master, there’s a play between form and formlessness that’s occurring. Plot isn’t nearly as significant as performance and the relationship between scenes. The surface veneer is that of a movie embracing a classical approach. One gets the sense that Anderson is searching for his David Lean directing Noël Coward moment. A stripped-down narrative that really wants to be nothing more than the story of two people, bolstered by deft filmmaking and great acting. However, this is a Paul Thomas Anderson film and whether he’s being modest or fooling himself, there’s never anything quite so simple when it comes to his own creative mind.
Layered and nuanced, as his work has come to be expected, there’s a tug and pull that exists between this desire to be taut and simplistic and the natural inclination Anderson seems to exude in exploring varied, complex ideas that nag at him. Classical moments give way to moments that seek to defy classical traditions. Accompanied by Jonny Greenwood’s mesmerizing and haunting score that borders between classical itself and jazz compositions that stretch into experimental spaces, it’s a menagerie of phantasmagorical scenes that only settles into a more realized place when Alma and Reynold’s relationship becomes a tête-à-tête of personality conflicts, parsing out a place for a lasting relationship.
Anderson has cited Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Rebecca as a major inspiration. A springboard for a what-if that takes the perspective of Rebecca’s heroine, known only as Mrs. de Winter, and asks what if she decided to push back. Alma isn’t one to be pushed or subjected to expectations that are beyond her own integrity and begins finding ways to interject herself into Reynold’s waning attention. Reynolds for his part, is aware of his shortcomings, and while he has no intention of reforming them, sees himself as cursed. The most interesting moments here come from the ways Reynolds and Alma confront the difficulties of attempting to prolong their love.
Elusive and hypnotic, the movie at times becomes lost in its own cleverness but never at the expense of its performances. Krieps is flat-out astonishing as Alma and given the fact she’s acting against the indelible Day-Lewis only ups her game into the stratosphere of a performance that will not be forgotten. Day-Lewis is of course superb in what he’s deemed to be his final role. Manville may be the secret jewel of the film but unfortunately her character doesn’t present the agency that Alma and Reynolds have. This however speaks to a greater aspect of Anderson’s work, especially with his last few films, which has become less about characters with traditional arcs and more about the impressions of characters upon emotion and performance.
Surprisingly funnier than one would think, there’s a delicacy somewhat hidden behind the romance and suspense that makes this all the more absorbing. Richly textured with a haunting vibe that approaches surrealism at times unlike any one else does. More matter-of-fact and opaque. Anderson has again fashioned a compelling, unique and utterly unforgettable movie.