Our next big awards contender is Phantom Thread. The big clues to the awards aspirations here are Paul Thomas Anderson writing and directing, and Daniel Day Lewis starring in the main role. Both their names carry a lot of critical weight. Anderson is a difficult director: his films are dense and sometimes defiantly resist easy viewing. I found his latest film about a fastidious couturier and his lover riveting and quite accessible – by Anderson’s standards, that is.
Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) is an acclaimed dressmaker dominating the prestigious world of haute couture. He’s a precise and high maintenance individual pandered to because of his skill and reputation, enabled above all by his stern guardian and sister Cyril (Lesley Manville). His exacting standards become strained however when he takes on a new lover in form of Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress who becomes his muse.
Daniel Day-Lewis gives a reliably strong performance before his latest retirement
I am always in two minds about praising Daniel Day-Lewis. Yes, he is a very good actor with a dedicated attention to the physical aspects of performance. But, as one of my friends put it, you get the impression if he farted for two hours on screen the critics would say it was a piece of artistic genius. Praise for him can be over effusive, in other words. His performance here as Reynolds Woodcock is typically showy, highly-mannered, eccentric and impressive. I think it fundamentally works because Reynolds fits neatly into the aura of vain egomania that permeates all of Day-Lewis’ roles. The film would utterly fall apart were it not for Krieps’ far more reserved performance to counterbalance this. It is far harder to carry a film when your role requires that much restraint. I must say that if the film were to be praised on one performance however, it would be Manville. In what is an actor-driven film, her astringent sister is the source of so much of the essential venom of the plot and she delivers it mostly with her eyes.
I loved Anderson’s adaptation of Inherent Vice despite myself. No doubt it was wilfully resistant of interpretation. 2012’s The Master was perhaps too keen to defy comprehension for its own good. I think Phantom Thread strikes a much more skilful balance between leaving much unspoken or suggested without delving into needless obtuseness. The film is still maze of pathological psychology, abusive relationships, developmental issues and unhealthy attraction. But for all that, it still frames everything in an accessible and understandable manner.
Though the scope is larger, the core of the film is a fraught three-hander
The prime example is the unvoiced power struggle between Cyril and Alma for the retentive Reynold’s affections. Reynolds is forever trying to replace his mother and plays the two off each other instinctively to better appease his ego. Everything is in service to him, the giant spoiled baby. Cyril and Alma know this and both struggle with the fact they loathe Reynold’s behaviour, yet both are compelled to seek validation from him. Therefore, they compete for his love, simply escalating the stakes of the absurd game of playing mother. But because these relationships are expressed through familiar scenarios – bickering, breakfast squabbles, petty breaches of manners, spiteful intrusions of domestic roles – they emerge very naturally for the viewer.
And that is just one surface level dimension of the film which involves a lot of unspoken and implicit elements. Phantom Thread, pertaining to fashion as it does, is obsessed with surfaces and the schism between public and private selves. Reynolds is a dressmaker after all, trained to present better idealised versions of people than they truly are. The film is especially concerned with when the stitching frays and the private self is exposed. Reynolds appears a bullying and authoritative alpha male but this conceals the fact he is a cossetted frail child. Alma appears the fawning muse but she has a defiant sincerity lacking in world of shallow surfaces around her, and a pernicious streak. Cyril is perhaps the biggest kernel, utterly unfaltering towards Reynolds yet there are suggestions of deeper resentment and disappointment at dedicating her life to this man.
Lofty as the film is, the merits of Phantom Thread are pleasingly simple. It is a well-written, beautifully shot film with exquisite sound design. The characters and themes are thought-through, communicated through strong performances but never resorting to patronising exposition of the inner working. Anderson does make demands of the viewer and expects them to keep pace with complex characters in a complex setting of money, fashion and twisted power dynamics. But he does not overstep into opaque pretension. Frankly, this is one of his best.
Verdict: Phantom Thread is a rich film that doesn’t sacrifice depth for its clarity.