Phantom Thread Review: PTA returns with the very best of his touches
The magic in Phantom Thread is in how Anderson lets his couple navigate their relationship, and Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps go a long way in setting it up
In Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread, the camera floats in straight lines or stays still, either capturing Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) working on one of his flowing gowns or acknowledging the deep admiration or intense resentment he and his latest muse, Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps), have for each other. Anderson loves to frame paintings, quite literally, with some of his shot compositions. Solid shapes act as containers of his principal characters -- there are doors, windows, bar fronts, mirrors and even car windshields, with Reynolds and Alma blocked in front or behind these objects. The visual language of Phantom Thread complements Reynolds's profession at times. It is in love with symmetry, and in love with itself and its creations. Anderson decided not to have a cinematography credit for Phantom Thread because it was a collaborative effort and he felt giving himself or any one person the credit would be misleading and inappropriate. Strangely, it assumes a parallel with the fashion industry. The creations are Reynolds's, the name on the dresses is Reynolds Woodcock but the work is collaborative. Tens of seamstresses work on a single dress day in and day out, but it is Reynolds to whom women come and say, "I'd love to be buried in one of your dresses Mr. Woodcock."
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps
In Alma, the very proper Reynolds encounters an unusual match. They meet at a restaurant where Alma is waiting tables and she stumbles around awkwardly, in a place one presumes she'd know too well. So how would she perform in the house of Woodcock as his new prop, a mannequin he adopts to drape his fantastical creations over? It is a clash of culture, clash of class and the film deceives you, at first, into thinking that Alma has voluntarily walked into purgatory headlined by Reynolds's toxicity. He begins to control her life and her movements now that she is under his roof, but long before he does, we get to notice through mirrors behind him that when Reynolds is busy seeing designs on her body (he says she has no breasts and declares, “It is my job to give you some, if I choose to"), she is already towering over him, scheming her love for him. It is love more schemed than fallen into, more one-upmanship than selflessness. Alma misdirects you by saying "No one can stand as long as I can," which soon changes to, "I want to love him the way I can." Only, nothing ever changed.
Food becomes an important aspect of Phantom Thread, almost rivalling the clothes. They meet around a table where Alma takes breakfast order from a visibly-smitten Reynolds, and at home it is around breakfast where Alma begins to recognise his world with only him as the occupant and others existing in his servility, a world Alma cannot stand. In addition to working on lining of dresses, Alma takes an interest in cooking at the Woodcock household. The vocations seem to go hand in hand, both requiring perfect quantities and measurements. Both requiring keen eyes watching over them and both existing in different forms for different classes, commanding judgments that fall over a range bookended by adequacy and snobbery. Reynolds is incensed by the word 'chic' in fashion parlance in the same way his limits are tested by Alma's thunderous table manners. Their relationship simmers one minute and boils the next, thriving in those moments when one gains control over the other, smugness washing over the face of the victor and a deathly pall hanging over the vanquished.
The magic in Phantom Thread is in how Anderson lets his couple navigate their relationship, their discovery of each other, and the two actors go a long way in setting it up. This is as much a performers' film as a director's film. Daniel Day-Lewis is no stranger to playing obsessive, oppressive characters and in Woodcock he finds a designer for whom clothes are the living things and human beings the objects that are in desperate need of them. His raised eyebrows at a client's mistreatment of his dress creates wrinkles on his forehead that remain there for a full couple of minutes or longer, the entirety of the scene. They relax only when he realises that it means just as much to Alma. Krieps who resembles a young Meryl Streep can boast of a comparable screen presence. The story of Phantom Thread lies not in Reynold's and Alma's verbal battles but in the silences they share, when they meet between the corners of their eyes, sizing up each other (needing a measuring tape and a notebook only once) to know how hard this button can be pushed, and share moments of strengths and weaknesses, inevitably leading to a staring contest. If there is anyone who's showing no sign of weakness, it is Paul Thomas Anderson.