- Movie Rating -

Phantom Thread (2017)

| January 25, 2018

Reynolds Woodcock is a genius with a needle and thread.  As London’s top designer he works in women’s fashion the way that most artists work in water colors or clay.  From this medium he exudes a mastery of the art in its purest form, shaping and sizing a woman’s body into a garment that looks as if she were born wearing it.  Fashion is the blood that runs through Reynolds’ veins, but it is also a symbol of the shroud that keeps him closed off from feeling anything for anyone.  There is an iceberg inside of him that encases his heart.  Women are only as useful to him as his dress mannequins.

Phantom Thread, the new film by Paul Thomas Anderson tells the story of the one woman who is able to find a way around his dismissive resolve.  I won’t give too much away, I’ll just say that some may not like where the movie goes, but those who are able to accept its final destination will mostly likely regard it with “Well . . . to each his own.”  Let’s put it this way, here is a movie about a destructive relationship that Fifty Shades of Grey should have been.

The woman is question is Alma (Vicki Krieps), pretty Luxembourgian waitress many years his junior that he seemingly warms up to one morning while she is serving him at a local coffee shop.  He likes her shape, her face; something about her entices him.  To us, she’s interesting.  She isn’t beautiful, but she’s pretty in a very sweet way.  To Reynolds (Daniel Day-Lewis), she displays a flawed shape, a body bearing small breasts and wide hips that he finds perfect to match his work.  She loves him.  She loves pleasing him, giving purpose to his mad obsession and she accepts his distant demeanor as an artist finding his groove.

On their first date, he does all the talking, particularly about his late mother who inspired his craft.  He confides in her that every dress that he designs is hidden with messages sewn into the lining.  The personality of the garment must always come from him.  Alma is fascinated not only the by the personality of his craft but his immediate manner with her.  He does not seduce her but takes her back to his studio where he measures her.  He is fascinated by her too, but only in form and function.  Alma confides that she is insecure about her shape, but his sister brings it back to a pragmatic level: “You’re perfect.  He likes a little belly.”

Soon Alma is living in Reynolds’ home, living a life that is less suited to a mate than to an employee.  Reynolds has a strict routine locked within four walls from which he will quickly dismiss anyone who upsets the order within.  Even his devoted sister Cyril (played by Supporting Actress nominee Leslie Manville) regards him like a glorified secretary.  His strict routine is seen without apology.  As the movie opens, we see him applying shaving crème; he puts on his suits and pulls up his cuffs.  He meticulously dresses his hair.  He is a well-kempt man of 50 and everything is in its place.  It is a routine that no one dare break, not even Alma who is criticized over breakfast for making too many motions.  Later she is dismissed from his studio when she brings tea that he didn’t ask for.  When she confides to Cyril that she would like to make a surprise dinner for him, the horror on Cyril’s face makes clear that this is a bad idea.  Alma knows it too.  And that’s where the relationship begins to bend.

To tell you what happens next would probably send you running from this review.  There’s a quick spoiler that could bring the whole thing down, but it would undermine what is on the screen.  You are never exactly sure what will become of this relationship.  You’re never entirely sure what each party wants.  What is this relationship all about?  What exactly does Alma want from this man whose iceberg resolve seems wretchedly immobile.  It is interesting that Alma’s past remains unexplored.  What does she see in this man?  Why is getting around his dismissiveness so important?

For a very long time, we don’t know the answers to any of this.  The movie is understated and seems – if you’re on the wrong wavelength – sort of repetitive; he’s cruel to her and she commits acts that will win his heart.  But the story is more than that, it is really about Alma trying to find the heart of this man.  What can she do to make him happy?  The answer, I’m afraid, is a touch disturbing.  More I will not say.  I can only say that this is one of those movie in which is helps to listen carefully to the dialogue.  The bizarre manner in which Alma attempts to make Reynolds happy (not revealed here) is not based on reckless actions, but on the careful observation of what she knows about him.  Listen carefully to their dialogue together and you’ll understand.

Phantom Thread is breathtakingly beautiful to look at too; with the sterility of Reynolds’ world broken only by a mid-section when he becomes ill.  Anderson shot most of the film himself and you can see great technical touches borrowed from Kubrick and a story arc that owes a lot to Hitchcock.  The music contrasts sharply with what is happening on the screen, acting as a Greek chorus that matches what we hear from what the characters reveal about themselves.  There is a moment late in the film which the couple seems happy but the music is achingly sad for all the right reasons.

The technical craft is matched by a performance by Daniel Day-Lewis (said to be his last) that is impeccably brilliant.  This is his second collaboration with Anderson after There Will Be Blood and the first in which his accent is very close to his own.  Day-Lewis has a way of playing a scene in which he can turn on a dime.  He is fierce and crude with those in his employ but he later becomes a soft kitten in Alma’s company when she takes care of him during his illness.  He wants nothing from anyone, but we can see him struggling underneath not to feel something for this woman who doggedly refuses to be turned out.

There is a lot about this film that I haven’t revealed; much that I haven’t talked about.  That’s because Anderson keeps us in the dark for most of the way.  We are never really sure when this film takes place.  It seems to be sometime in the 50s, after the war but before The Beatles.  The vagueness of that time frame gives the story room to breathe.  Setting the story in a solid time period would breed expectations, and this is a movie that is all about upending our expectations.  When we arrive at the end, we are left with questions, but we are never frustrated.  The idea of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object has never been so tantalizing, or more disturbing.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2017) View IMDB Filed in: Drama