Phantom Thread (2018) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Phantom Thread (2018)

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Reynolds Woodcock is a man of particular taste and undeniable talent.  He attracts women with his beautiful dress designs just as sure as he drives them away with the tight control he keeps on his surroundings.  When he meets Alma, there stands the chance that he found the woman able to put up with his dominating life force.  What he doesn't realize is that Alma is just as capable as he, and he is about to find out what life with her leads to.  P.T. Anderson writes the screenplay for and directs Phantom Thread, which stars Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, and Lesley Manville.

Back when P.T. Anderson's films were a high-wire act of tension and pastiche pulled from his favorite artists, he blended a keen sense of humor to his often bleak surroundings.  His films are so saturated in loneliness that his humor kept things from spiraling into despair.  Even as he's moved on to more self-assured productions the humor, sometimes light and often dark, remained.  His last film, Inherent Vice was funny and melancholic in equal measure, and he punctuates the driving darkness of There Will Be Blood with bleak hilarity that - in retrospect - sounds positively Trumpian.

Phantom Thread is nowhere near as elegant and restrained as its advertising might suggest.  Yes, there are several visions of elegance in the dresses Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) creates.  But the elegance shifts away quickly to make room for the throbbing hostilities between Reynolds and whoever occupies his affections at the time.  His childishness also betrays the stiff surroundings, scoffing that he wants, "no more smudgy things" when his soon to be dispatched lover offers him a sweet treat.  It's in this way Anderson plays up the space between the rigid lines of architecture and carefully tailored dresses, he's conditioning us to look for any discrepancy - be it positive or negative - that emerges from the stoic surroundings.

Whiffs of Punch-Drunk Love in Alma and Woodcock's relationship, complete with the question about who is really in pursuit of the other.

Enter Alma (Vicky Krieps).  Alma is evidence Anderson has not abandoned pastiche but has become considerably more subtle about it.  Anderson pulls from John Cassavetes' bag of tricks when writing Alma and Woodcock's relationship, making them both a bit unhinged in a way reminiscent of A Woman Under the Influence.  Everything is so measured and deliberate that Alma's charming introduction, stumbling into her job as a waitress, seems a disturbance. But the glint in her eye and pulled-tight smile hint that she is potentially more aware of her weight on the surroundings than he is.  My suspicion was immediately confirmed by a note from Alma to Woodcock, "For the hungry boy," which would be emasculating in most circumstances but here arouses Woodcock.

Anderson devotes the rest of Phantom Thread to this weird blend of romance, maternal patronizing, and near chaos.  Shades of Arsenic and Old Lace blend in when Woodcock introduces Alma to his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), whose first action is to take a whiff of Alma like a disaffected chef.  Anderson's approach isn't as broad as that dark slapstick classic, but it's no less weird.  His stiff compositions continue to invite our gaze and find discrepancies to pinpoint the characters' moods, like when Alma signals her frustration by pouring water from unusual heights or Woodcock's dark frame casting a long shadow over a colorful party (this moment feels in debt to a similar shot from Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet.)  The elegant piano compositions of Jonny Greenwood are in on the joke, cutting out to quiet in the most childish moment of Alma and Woodcock's relationship complete with on-screen spittle and paranoid accusations.

Day-Lewis, who has said that Phantom Thread marks his retirement from acting, turns in the most unusual performance of his career.  Woodcock is a man of stunted emotional growth, clearly weighed down by the specter of his mother.  Day-Lewis takes this as an opportunity to play Woodcock as if Charlie Brown (of Peanuts fame), swallowed a voice box set to Werner Herzog that stopped his puberty, and weighs the possibility of giving in to the codependent darkness of Woodcock's relationship with Alma.  His performance is every bit as odd, uncomfortable, and hilarious as my tangled description suggests. After seeing the ridiculous display of self-congratulation in the upper class with The Post, it was refreshing to watch Anderson and Day-Lewis punch up at the ridiculous affectations and tastes of self-appointed rulers.

Krieps is the real stunner of Phantom Thread.  She's been in some challenging productions before, including Hanna and A Most Wanted Man, but not in the lead.  Here she gives Phantom Thread its dangerous edge, tuning in to the childish dynamic of the Woodcock household with terrifying precision.  She's calculated, but just as much a slave to her desires as Woodcock is, which makes her increasingly desperate attempts to secure Woodcock's love for herself a volatile unknown.  I wondered how far she would go, and with every smile or quietly firm confrontation the tensions threatened to engulf others in her orbit.  Where Day-Lewis is amusing, Krieps is dramatically potent, and with her leading the way the duo is playful, dangerous, and weird.

P.T. Anderson hasn't completely abandoned pastiche but still applies his own spin, so this light allusion to Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet tickled me nicely.

Taken in concert with the rest of Anderson's career, Phantom Thread could just as well serve as an ending point with Day-Lewis' presumed retirement.  It's a spiritual sequel to Punch-Drunk Love - only where Punch-Drunk Love threatened to break at the seams with the violent possibilities of an adult relationship in a colorful kaleidoscope, Phantom Thread finds Anderson waiting patiently alongside the emotionally regressive relationship of Woodcock and Alma to see what impurities splash onto the canvas.  The difference is summed up nicely in one shift of Day-Lewis' face when fitting Alma for a dress, looking at her like a perfectly chiseled wonder of beauty then when Cyril appears he regards Alma like a frustrating block of marble that refuses to be sculpted properly

Phantom Thread is so peculiar in its mannered hints of disruption that I am curious about how audiences react to it. I could just as easily see people growing frustrated with the stillness and watching impatiently for the tensions to boil over.  That was not my experience, and with each cutting remark or terse smile I was drawn into the mystery of Alma and her plans for Woodcock.  Phantom Thread is a quiet triumph but don't mistake that for unassuming.  Anderson, Day-Lewis, and Krieps are operating at the top of their craft while reveling in every second of it.

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Phantom Thread (2018)

Screenplay written and directed by P.T. Anderson.
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, and Lesley Manville.

Posted by Andrew

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