Plush "Phantom Thread" Prevails On Its Own Terms

It’s wild to imagine anyone – even esteemed “There Will Be Blood” and “Inherent Vice” auteur Paul Thomas Anderson – staring down a blank piece of paper or a blinking text cursor only to peck out the bit of fashion-centric romantic esoterica that is “Phantom Thread.” The Daniel Day-Lewis starrer is both visually and narratively singular, virtuosic. It’s also liable to leave casual moviegoers cold to the touch.

Like the best of the writer-director’s oeuvre (still 2012’s “The Master,” “Phantom Thread” purposes its time and place (1950s London) not as mere background but a call to arms. Upper crust fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis, in supposedly his final performance) and his couture house are a general and his battlefield, his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) his battle worn lieutenant. Their quarrel is more with insiders (uncouth customers and disobedient domestics) than outsiders (the competition), Woodcock’s success and power making for an especially insulated if not isolated existence.

Anderson smartly keeps us as blindered as his protagonist, seldom venturing outside haut de Woodcock.

The rare exception is the introduction of a young waitress named Alma Elsen (Vicky Krieps). While on holiday in the countryside, Reynolds visits a restaurant where his soon-to-be muse waits on him. Alma accepts a dinner date that ends in something arguably more intimate than sex: measurement-taking. As Reynolds methodically, almost preternaturally moves his measuring tape all over Alma’s body – the scene’s editing both frenzied and elegant – the duo’s power dynamic begins to calcify. He communicates in slings and arrows, she in quiet deference. For both, this is love – or one of its misty permutations.

For a time Alma seems to contentedly bask in her squeeze’s extravagant world; we soak in the pic’s lush art design and Anderson’s rose-colored cinematography. At the midpoint between the Woodcock’s deceptively soft tyranny and Alma’s newfound significance, there is a comfortability; ostensibly sexless, but powerful all the same. Cyril is the only wild card in the house, wordlessly seething over her new station as the third most important woman in her brother’s life. (He obsesses over his late mother, manifesting his sense of loss in both his work, sewing remembrances into his dresses, and his dreams.)

As in real life, small annoyances in the partnership grow into bigger ones. Alma is a noisy eater, the crunch of her morning toast leading to increasingly cruel protestations on the part of Reynolds. After Alma’s good faith gesture of a cozy homemade dinner is met with avoidance and then hostility, she deliberately puts poisonous mushrooms in her beau’s food. To note that this is the film’s fulcrum is an huge understatement; Reynolds’ resulting illness adds a mesmerizing dimension to his and Alma’s relationship. He descends from his tower of terror, returning into something resembling a human being again. But it doesn’t last.

The film’s third act is so delicate, so well considered that to write of it here would be as malicious as Reynolds Woodcock at his worst. Suffice it to say, Anderson makes indelible psychological work of his leads, shepherding viewers who’ve hung in with him to a quietly brilliant denouement; here a brief, surprising medium close-up of a side-lying Day-Lewis is all Paul Thomas Anderson needs to answer any lingering questions we might have about the rapport between his two leads.

The whipped cream on this confection is Jonny Greenwood’s beautiful, string-heavy score – perhaps the musician’s finest work to date outside of Radiohead. Crucially, many of Greenwood’s cues strike as warmly familiar (the main theme half-evokes The Beatles’ Abbey Road cut “Sun King”), ensuring that the effect of the world Anderson has created never breaks, keeping us entranced throughout. In fact, the score is so pervasive that more than once it comes off as oppressive. But listening to it removed from the film reveals a richly textured, deliberate manipulation of mood. There might be no better partnership between filmmaker and composer going right now; this particular collaboration begs many more.

Although elements of “Phantom Thread” are liable to register with some viewers as preposterously subdued, its cumulative effect is striking. As the pic’s end titles arrive, we realize just how well it’s done its fancy, cagey thing, never compromising its vision and stiffly rebuffing the negative connotations of melodrama. With the aid of an impeccable cast and crew, Paul Thomas Anderson has done it again, leaving nary a doubt that he’ll be back in a few years to do it again.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: December 25, 2017 (Limited)
Studio: Focus Features
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Screenwriter: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville
MPAA Rating: R (for language)