Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread opens with a simple, stately title card and the emerging sound of a crackling fire. Soon, a moodily lit young woman (an impeccably unpredictable Vicky Krieps) is providing the introductory voice-over to our cinematic affair. Right there, Anderson upends our expectations, as this being a Daniel Day Lewis film (and purportedly his last!), one expected if anyone would be narrating this tale, it would have been him.
Daniel Day Lewis is indeed the main focus of attention, a classic Andersonian archetype, the tortured artist/mad genius…a true narcissist who is also somehow sympathetic, likely a result of Lewis’ and Anderson’s own symbiotic genius. Their finely stitched designer Reynolds Woodcock is the toast of the 1950’s London fashion scene, and his art, those costumes, are to die for. But the story is told mostly from the point of view of his new love interest, the enigmatic Alma (Krieps), an initially demure waitress he picked up in the British countryside…both actress and environ exquisitely photographed, as is every single thing, by Anderson’s camera lens.
We know there’s more to Alma because of how Anderson frames the story, but we’re never given any exposition on her (and only a modicum of backstory – mostly surrounding his mother – for Reynolds) and thus we’re forced to judge her (and ultimately Reynolds) only by what unfolds on-screen. We slowly see how Alma takes hold and upends Reynolds’ structured life enmeshed with his sister Cyril (a perfectly reserved but commanding Lesley Manville). Alma is far more than the typical girl Reynolds and Cyril routinely toss aside like an off-season dress. In fact, she emerges from her cocoon as another Andersonian archetype…the person willing to do anything to fit into, and keep together, their new makeshift family, no matter how dysfunctional (in ways both comic and tragic) that family becomes.
Early on Alma playfully warns Reynolds not to challenge her to a staring contest…he’ll lose. The entire film then becomes a staring contest between these two, and we the audience are challenged to stare at every single beautiful detail on-screen, watch for every little stitch of their relationship as it’s sewn right before our eyes. Later, at the end of their whirlwind weekend together in the countryside, Alma says to Reynolds, “Whatever you do, do it carefully.” In the moment this seems to be a delicate woman warning a roguish man to be careful with her heart…but as the plot unfolds, and in hindsight, it could just as easily be interpreted as a threat.
All throughout the film, while Anderson lights and frames everything flawlessly (those dresses, those drapes, those hardwood floors, those stairs…and those stares), Jonny Greenwood’s beautiful and timeless music illuminates, punctuates, and accentuates the roiling emotions running underneath. It truly is a masterwork of film scoring, out-classing everything Greenwood has done before…and when the music takes a break, the silence is filled with Anderson’s words and the thunderous emoting of his perfect cast. Yet the audience is gifted even more aural layers…as when music and words are muted…a brilliantly constructed sound design allows things like the buttering of one’s toast or the shaking of salt onto asparagus to represent an epic battle of wills.
At times the film takes on the airs of a gothic melodrama, while at other times its hues bend towards the romantic, while still others times the words coming out of the actors’ mouths (along with that spiteful buttering and bitter salting) smacks of the darkest of comedies. Yet as whole, the film is organically something else all-together. And miraculously there is an element of sustained suspense as we’re never quite sure where Alma or Anderson are going to take the story…we’re never quite sure of what secret is going to be woven into the fabric like the secret messages Reynolds stitches into the linings of his dresses.
The thread of genius, of the tortured artist, haunts the film. At one point, when Reynolds is in a state of…well, let’s not give anything away and just call it extreme distress…he has a ghostly vision of his dead mother in the wedding dress (for her second marriage) that he designed. Perhaps Alma, too, is just an apparition…a manifestation of his tortured imaginings. Ah, but Anderson wouldn’t cop out like that. No, Alma is indeed real, and her own woman. And while she might not be particularly skilled at backgammon…in the chess game for Reynolds’ heart, she’s put him and the audience in an emotional check mate.
Written by David H. Schleicher
I also loved the way Anderson depicted all the seamstresses who worked for Reynolds – the way they all paraded up the stairs to the attic work space, donned their smocks and got straight to work. They were like the little mice of Cinderella, making the artist’s visions a reality.
…and how in the countryside Alma was treated like Cinderella at the ball, but when brought back to the London house, she too was to become a mouse.
Beautifully written piece here David! And yes without a doubt one of the 3 or 4 very best films of 2017.
Sam – though there are quite a few heavy hitters I’ve yet to see (namely The Post and The Shape of Water), I’m fairly confident in my top 3 for the year. I hope to share my list in the next day or two.