MOVIE REVIEW: Phantom Thread




In Phantom Thread, everyone who enters the studio, workplace, and residence of The House of Woodcock, occupied by renowned London dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock, climbs a winding staircase incandescently lit by a blend of chandelier and skylight.  The symbolism to this trajectory feels twofold.  Each customer or guest could be ascending into the brightness of a heavenly place towards a stature of regality granted by Woodcock’s legendary garments.  They could also be rising to an unknown height of peril, blinded by the perception of dashing decadence they think awaits.  In many ways, both are occurring for the characters and also we the viewers.

Phantom Thread is a exquisite film of elevated aesthetics that drape over a scintillating story of tumultuous potential discord.  There is infinite richness within the despair, spun by Daniel Day-Lewis re-teaming with his There Will Be Blood director Paul Thomas Anderson, as the fictional 1950s tailor of status.  Mundane in some moments and mysterious in others, the sum of the literal and figurative details within the stitches and seams of this film make it one of the year’s best.

Lewis’s Reynolds Woodcock is a meticulous and introverted man of his craft, a bachelor choosing resolutely to be married to his work and not another person, a practice of companionship he defines as deceitful to oneself.  As a tailor to the socialites and elite of high society and flanked by his strict aide Cyril (Lesley Manville of Another Year), Reynolds has become accustomed to the adoring and revered following he has developed and the finery that comes with that public standing.  His ego makes him dismissive to confrontation yet is a blind instigator with his cantankerous pretentiousness.   

On a retreat trip to the countryside, Reynolds becomes smitten with the curves, measurements, and natural beauty of a bourgeoisie hotel waitress named Alma Elson, played by the emerging actress Vicky Krieps, looking like a young Meryl Streep.  He brings her back to London and into his circle, starting a new surge of creativity.  Seeking love more than the fashion, Alma challenges Reynolds’s tastes only to learn that you cannot entirely change a man of obsession, routine, and talent like that, even if marriage comes to pass.  

Chief among the purveyors of fastidiousness is the film’s star Daniel Day-Lewis.  If this is indeed Lewis’s last performance before his self-declared retirement, he leaves us with a gem.  Method to the end, the bated breath he creates with each measured line delivery and creative performance nuance could fill the vacuum of space.  Lewis creates an obstinate and frankly misogynistic man you crave meets his due comeuppance from the women who know him worst, the brave Vicky Krieps and an extremely game Lesley Manville.  Both go toe-to-toe with the legend and win plenty of rounds of their own.

In his fourth collaboration with Anderson, Radiohead rocker-turned-composer Jonny Greenwood crafts a luscious and lingering musical score.  Inescapable and arguably the year’s best, Greenwood’s score is filled with classically-inspired motifs and stands as a huge step up from the scrambled guitar-centered dirges of his previous PTA soundtracks.  His music backs every floor creak or dragged slide of a shoe on hardwood floor and bathes the visuals in symphonic satin, led by the impeccable costume design work, from the gowns right down the pajamas, from Academy Award winner Mark Bridges (The Artist).  Hand that man his second Oscar.

The insulated molten core of Phantom Thread remains its driven filmmaker.  Paul Thomas Anderson steps away from his usual kinks and quirks to make a film inside a setting of high refinement compared his usual greasy grit.  Phantom Thread is a pristine chamber-like piece with scant melodramatic fancy.  Manning the camera himself, Anderson provides flawless framing to tiptoe around the edges of the indulgent rabbit hole our characters flirt with.  The light shadings within the narrative can try to wash away the dark undertones, but its suspect presence remains.  Anderson’s sleek and Oscar-worthy writing of this perturbing pendulum creates an engrossing level of tension.  The film could fill volumes of studies with its fascinating ruminations on a great many themes of all layers of meticulousness on display.  

LESSON #1: THE EXHILARATION THAT COMES FROM FEELING BEAUTIFUL-- Equaling much of the same feelings from Jocelyn Moorhouse’s Kate Winslet film The Dressmaker from last year, external beauty can undeniably create courage and boost self-esteem.  The power of a good dress can do that in spades, especially to those fraught with body image fears.  That effect, however, can be shallow or come to spoiled people who do not deserve the outer beauty to hide their inner ugliness.    

LESSON #2: REMOVE “CHIC” FROM YOUR VOCABULARY-- Let Reynolds Woodcock tell you off colorfully on the use of the word that is supposed to mean “smart elegance and sophistication,” “distinctive,” and “faddishly popular.”  It’s an A+ rant.  

LESSON #3: THE MANIPULATIVE CREATOR-AND-MUSE RELATIONSHIP-- Phantom Thread is one of the most tantalizing and interesting examples of this form of artistic union.  The demands are telling and taxing.  The stamina of the inspiration is tested and the shelf-life dispensing the old for the new hangs over Alma and Reynolds.  This relationship goes further than the beauty of fashion to create a sordid manipulation of love, desire, and dreams in the unattainable quest for perfection.

LESSON #4: THE QUEST FOR PERFECTION IS THE QUEST FOR FEELING-- Speaking of perfection, purists and sticklers like Reynolds desire the purity and quality they seek because it sustains them.  The achievement of it is one of the few things that arouses emotion and satisfaction.  His craft is a fetish and vice versa, yet confidence comes from the concentration he wills to bring forth.

LESSON #5: “WHATEVER YOU DO, DO IT CAREFULLY”-- This quote from Reynolds, the peak of the film's trailer, sent in the direction of his new muse could be echoed in dozens of aspects of one’s life.  Mundane activities could become effective and even artful with an extra level of paid care and consideration.  At the same time, there is an unsettling level to that rigidity.  Often there is a missing flexibility to the perfectionist who cannot get over themselves or adjust their idiosyncrasies.