Should you decide to visit your local cinema to take in a showing of Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest offbeat character study, you might want to make a bit more effort with your wardrobe than you’re accustomed to for such outings. After spending 130 minutes totally immersed in the world of 1950s high fashion, I felt like an utter rube walking out of the cinema in my jeans and hoody combo.
Phantom Thread is as immersive as cinema gets. From its opening sequence, which takes us inside the House of Woodcock, a London fashion house run in quietly tyrannical fashion by renowned dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis), Anderson’s film dismisses any thoughts we might have of our own world of 2018. As we witness Reynolds go about his daily grooming routine it becomes clear we’re watching a movie about a perfectionist, one made by a perfectionist, and starring a perfectionist in what is reputedly his final acting role.
Set in his ways like a tree set in concrete, Reynolds knows what he likes, and he likes what he knows (the film is set at a time when no man was more attractive than one who made things; and if those things happened to make women feel beautiful, like Reynolds’ gowns, all the better). As such, his relationships with the many admiring members of the opposite sex rarely get past the following morning’s breakfast, where idle chit chat and toast buttering irritate him to a laughably over the top degree.
It’s during breakfast away from home, in a small country café, that Reynolds meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), a pretty Eastern European waitress who is won over by his flirtatious charm and accepts his invitation for a dinner date. The relationship blooms quickly and Reynolds invites her into his home, teaching her the ways of his trade.
It doesn’t take long for Alma’s ways to begin annoying the fiercely independent and somewhat narcissistic Reynolds, and her presence begins to disrupt his work - she’s become an anti-muse! Reynolds’ assumption that she will follow the other women in his past and leave quietly once exposed to his spoilt brat boorishness couldn’t be more wrong however. Alma is determined to make the relationship work, even if she has to take extreme measures.
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Hell is other people, Reynolds appears to believe, but they’re useful to have around when you’re sick. Literally haunted by memories of his mother, the only woman he seems to have truly loved before meeting Alma, Reynolds only fully appreciates Alma’s affection when he falls ill and is once again a little boy seeking comfort in a woman’s bosom. Once back on his feet however, Reynolds returns to his solipsistic state.
So extreme at times is Reynolds’ emotional cruelty towards Alma that she doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry, and you’ll find yourself in a similar quandary, as Reynolds is an utter cad, but one whose barbs are so cutting in that classic British manner that you’ll be rolling in the aisles at some of his putdowns. Phantom Thread is one of the most laugh out loud hilarious films of recent years, Lewis displaying such a natural gift for comic timing that it’s regretful he never got to explore that side of his talent in his presumably now complete career.
If you believe a well directed film is one that never makes you think about its direction, Phantom Thread is a masterclass in the craft. Perhaps on a second viewing I might be more attentive to Anderson’s camera and blocking, but two minutes into his latest film I was so engrossed in its central characters that Anderson could have filmed the whole thing with his camera upside down and I wouldn’t have noticed. It’s a film in love with the people in front of the camera, and the sumptuous world they inhabit, and Anderson gives himself over to let his actors take centre stage. When your lead actors are Daniel Day Lewis and the relative newcomer but instant star Vicky Krieps (who does far more than simply hold her own opposite the screen legend, going so far as to snatch entire scenes from his considerable grasp), that’s a wise decision.
Some commentators have described the central relationship of Phantom Thread as an extreme one, and while it’s certainly more dramatic than most, there will be few viewers who don’t find themselves uncomfortably identifying with either Reynolds or Alma at moments. Chances are you’ve been either the Reynolds or the Alma, or perhaps even both, at some point in a romantic relationship. Anyone who claims their partner loudly scraping toast at the crack of dawn wouldn’t irk them deserves a Nobel Peace prize, and we’ve all felt overly smothered by affection. Equally, few of us haven’t naively invested too much in a romantic partner who doesn’t warrant, deserve or even crave such attention.
It might be the most brutally honest movie about romantic relationships to come out of mainstream American cinema since Eyes Wide Shut, but despite such a heady exploration of how awful people can be for each other, Phantom Thread is an undeniably romantic yarn, one which never judges its protagonists for their extreme behaviour towards each other, and ultimately it leaves us content in the knowledge that two difficult but fascinating and compelling characters have found their equal.
4 1/2 Stars Out of 5
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson; Starring: Vicky Krieps, Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville, Gina McKee, Brian Gleeson
originally published: 2018-01-24 00:54:00
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