When the 2017 Oscar nominees were announced, one of the bigger surprises was the amount of love the Academy dished out for writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. In hindsight, maybe this should have been more obvious considering the Oscar-friendly pedigree (Anderson a.k.a. PTA), the acting phenom (Daniel Day-Lewis), the setting (1950s), and the subject matter (obsessive artists). I had no real desire to see Phantom Thread after enduring PTA’s last two movies. I strongly disliked Inherent Vice and The Master, to the point that when I read about the love for either I can only stare at my feet, shake my head, and hope one day these defenders of rambling, plotless, pointless navel-gazing will come to their better senses. While not nearly ascending to the heights of his early, propulsive, deeply felt works, Phantom Thread is for me a marked improvement as a PTA film experience and an intriguing study in toxic desire.
In 1950s post-war London, fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) is famous for dressing movie stars, princesses, and the rich elite of the world. His sister, Cyril (Leslie Manville), acts as his business manager and personal manager, including kicking out the old muses who have overstayed their welcome. After a day out in the country, Reynolds becomes instantly smitten with Alma (Vicky Krieps), a foreign waitress. He pulls Alma into his highly secluded world. She lives in the Woodcock offices and he summons her at all hours, caught up in the madness of inspiration. Alma is overjoyed by the attention and adoration from such a famous and brilliant artist. It’s the kind of feeling she doesn’t want to end, and when Reynolds begins to lose interest with her, Alma will fight however she can to stay longer in this new and exciting world.
While this doesn’t have nearly the same amount of plot in comparison to early PTA, Phantom Thread at least held my interest and felt like what I was watching mattered. The character dynamics were compelling. Reynolds is a puzzle and we’re side-by-side with Alma trying to figure him out, suss his moods, and analyze why he is the way he is and how best to compensate. It becomes something like a portrait of a Great Artist who doesn’t operate on the same social and interpersonal levels as the rest of us, leaving Alma fumbling for stability. A breakfast in silence can become a battle of wills on the sound design team (you’ll never notice the sound of bread scraping like ever before). It’s not quite the thorough character study that There Will Be Blood purported to be, but Day-Lewis is as reliable an anchor for a movie as you’ll get in cinema. I was especially fascinated by the role of his sister, Cyril. She’s the gatekeeper to a very private world and knows the precise routines and preferences of her very fussy brother. She doesn’t necessarily approve of his actions but she sees them out, though occasionally she has to be more of the responsible one of the pair. Cyril is his lifeline, enabler, and enforcer. She treats Alma as a visitor into their home, further magnifying her worry about eventually being replaced by another muse for Reynolds. This insecurity is what drives much of the film’s second half as Alma tries everything she knows to assert power and influence so that she will not be unceremoniously craved out of this new special life for herself.
At its core Phantom Thread is an exploration of the stubborn artistic process and the toxic relationship of chasing those mercurial, waning affections. It’s very easy to feel for Alma, a relative nobody plucked form obscurity and whisked away to a glamorous world of London’s fashion scene where she is the chief muse of a brilliant man. When he lays the full force of his attentions on her, it’s like feeling the warmth of the sun, and her world revolves around feeling that intensity. When his attention is elsewhere, Alma can feel lost and discarded, desperate to seek that warmth and fulfillment once more, though running into barriers because of Reynolds’ peculiar personal habits and demands. She plans a surprise romantic dinner that Reynolds resents, and he congratulates himself on the “gallantry” of eating his asparagus with butter instead of the salt he normally likes. Reynolds is a powerful figure who casts a powerful shadow. You feel for Alma as she tries again and again to find the exact formula for pleasing and comforting this obsessive man given to routines. She’s tying to crack the code back into Reynolds good graces. He’s an inscrutable force and one Alma is willing to genuflect to for his affections. Because of this dynamic, much of Phantom Thread is watching Alma try and fail to impress or win back the attentions of Reynolds, which is part fascinating and part humiliating. The film explores Reynolds’ history of burning through his shiny new muses, relying upon the iron-hearted determination of his sister to finally push out the discarded lovers/muses. For Reynolds, his muses follow the cyclical pattern of a love affair, the excitement and discovery of something new, the possibilities giving way to artistic breakthroughs, and then what once seemed en vogue is now yesterday’s old fashion.
Because of this tight narrative focus, the film does become repetitious in its second half, finding more ways to expound upon the same ideas already presented. Reynolds is a jerk. His process is of utmost importance and must not be altered. Alma is struggling to make herself more essential and less expendable in his orbit. She doesn’t want to end up like all the other prim women who have been elbowed out of the spotlight. She’s feisty and pushy and will challenge Reynolds, and this doesn’t usually work out well. While the strength of the acting never wavers, the plot does feel like it reaches a ceiling, which makes the film feel like it’s coasting for far too long (and it’s also far too long). It feels like Alma is fighting an unwinnable battle and after all her efforts she’ll just be another muse in a history of muses. That’s probably why Anderson gooses his third act with a thriller turn and with a specific plot device I’ve weirdly seen a lot in 2017. It feels like this plot turn is going to disrupt the cycle of Reynolds affections, and then as things begin reverting back to the old Reynolds, it all feels so hopelessly Sisyphean. And then, dear reader, the literal last few minutes almost save this entire movie’s lethargic second half. It’s a new turn that made me go, “Ohhhhh,” in interest, and it redefined the relationship and power dynamic between Alma and Reynolds in an intriguing way. It says a little something about the relationship between self-sacrifice and self-sabotage and how the power of giving can approach perverse levels of distorted self-fulfillment.
The biggest selling point of any movie with Daniel Day-Lewis is the man himself. He’s literally only been in four movies over the last decade, and in two of them he’s won Best Actor Oscars and was just nominated for another with Phantom Thread (Gary Oldman has that thing in the bag this year, though). The excellence of Day-Lewis is beyond dispute, and yet I would argue that Day-Lewis is pushed aside by the acting power of Krieg (A Most Wanted Man). This woman commands your attention enough that she can go toe-to-toe with Day-Lewis and win. She’s the worst at holding back her emotions and playing games, which makes her the most affecting to watch. When her romantic dinner goes badly, you can feel her reaching for reason, thinking out loud, her eyes glassy with uncertainty. When she’s speaking in an interview about her relationship with Reynolds, the warmth in Krieg radiates out from her. The other standout is Manville (Harlots) who does an incredible amount with mere looks. She can be withering. It’s a performance as controlled as Alma is uncontrolled, relying on the facade of calm to operate through a manufactured space of rules and expectations. And yes Day-Lewis is terrific. It’s also the first time he’s used his natural speaking voice in decades on screen.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest movie is about the world of fashion but it’s really about three characters jostling for understanding, attention, and control. We follow the tumultuous power dynamics of an artist-muse-lover relationship and the toxic implications it has on Alma as she struggles to maintain her position. The second half can get a bit repetitious and feel rudderless, but the eventual ending and wealth of great acting makes it an arguably justified journey. I lamented that Anderson was no longer making movies for me with the lurch he had taken with The Master and Inherent Vice in particular. He doesn’t have to make movies for me at all, but it was this sad realization that made me feel like I was undergoing a breakup with an eclectic artist I had loved tremendously in my younger days (Boogie Nights remains one of my favorites). Phantom Thread doesn’t exactly return things back to the way they used to be but it at least rights the ship, offering a mild course correction with a movie that is accessible and substantive. If this is indeed Day-Lewis’ last movie, at least it was better than Nine.
Nate’s Grade: B