There are so many delicate, intertwining threads connecting the latest drama from auteur filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson that pulling just one might cause the entire structure to unravel. Compared to Anderson’s more audacious masterpieces – Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), and There Will Be Blood (2007) – Phantom Thread is a low-key affair; a deliberate approach that will likely prevent it from becoming an immediate classic. Given time and reflection, however, this fragile beauty will prove itself powerful and enduring.
Not a single frame of Phantom Thread fails to mesmerize as romance, suspense, and interpersonal politics coalesce into something wholly unforgettable and disturbing. It’s the sort of film that washes over you like a lavish wave; only after catching your breath do you realize what a profound statement the filmmaker has made. We’ve certainly seen good stories about peculiar love triangles before (Hitchcock’s winning adaptation of Rebecca comes to mind), but few contribute so much to the nature of love and those foolish enough to pursue it.
We begin with an impossibly lovely girl named Alma (Vicky Krieps) recounting the details of a sordid love affair. Her face illuminated by the flickering firelight, we understand immediately this is a woman of surprising emotional maturity. A woman who isn’t afraid to give herself completely to romance; to do anything it takes to preserve love, even at the expense of her own soul.
On the other end of the emotional spectrum resides Alma’s lover, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis). Twice Alma’s age and infinitely more successful, Woodcock is a legendary dressmaker in 1950s London. He’s an admitted rogue, proclaiming himself an “incurable bachelor”. He treats love like a glorified wardrobe change; casually falling in and out of relationships, usually with one of his perfectly contoured models. Every element of his life, including how loudly his lover may scratch her burned toast, is under the strictest control.
And behind every appointment, every scrap of cloth that’s ordered, and every girl unceremoniously relieved of Woodcock’s affections there is his domineering sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville). Cyril never got married or had any children. There was simply no time. Her life’s work is managing Woodcock’s life; a buffer between the demands of a mundane world and the artistry of making women look beautiful. The line between enabler and taskmaster is desperately thin with Cyril, a confidante Woodcock glibly refers to as, “my old sew and sew”.
When Alma falls into Woodcock’s life, we see what must be a familiar pattern emerge — falling in love, drifting into boredom, tasking Cyril with dispatching the loveless husk that remains. But a funny thing happens on the way to relationship oblivion; Alma refuses to play along.
The complex triangle between Alma, Woodcock, and Cyril provides an unending source of tension for Phantom Thread. Cyril isn’t an adversary so much as a physical manifestation of Woodcock’s personal space. He’s absolutely impenetrable and yet, through persistence and splendid deception, Alma carves out a tiny foothold.
Events twist and turn in unpredictable ways, thanks in large part to Anderson’s observant script. Always a splendid visual practitioner (he shares credit as cinematographer on this film), Anderson doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his writing chops. Every word is laden with subtext, as these two intelligent women cleverly compete for the love of a man who loves only his work.
As always, Anderson shoots in 35mm and the luxurious results are a deafening argument against digital filmmaking. Each shot is rendered to accentuate the fabric, both of Woodcock’s life and his dresses. Measuring his latest model becomes an intricate act of foreplay; collarbone to breast, nipple to abdomen, abdomen to hips, etc. Even driving a car looks different in a P.T. Anderson film, with the camera angled upward through the car as Woodcock and Alma speed through a dark country forest. It’s a dazzling effect that gives one the sense of being trapped inside an otherworldly bubble, which is precisely what the inside of a car (and presumably Woodcock’s entire life) feels like.
To complete the immersive experience, Anderson fusses immensely over sound design. You can actually hear the needles pushing through thick fabric; the image made doubly effective by the old callouses on Woodcock’s habitually punctured fingers. Trusted composer Jonny Greenwood does his usual solid work for Anderson, crafting an elegant soundtrack comprised of evocative piano pieces. Woodcock’s life, at least by his idealized standards, is nothing but an elegant dinner party and the music matches those expectations with slavish perfection.
In the service of Anderson’s filmmaking mastery is the work of his magnificent cast. Manville is remarkable in her portrayal of the ‘woman behind the man’. Cyril holds the power to crush Woodcock at any moment, but she dare not tarnish the family legacy she’s worked so hard to facilitate. Krieps is devilishly allusive as Alma, who initially appears as nothing more than a passing trifle, only to grow into Woodcock’s most formidable nemesis and ally. When Alma physically strips the priceless wedding gown off a drunken (and unconscious) bride, you understand how Woodcock, despite his recalcitrance, would fall hopelessly in love with her.
What more can be said about Daniel Day-Lewis? He draws Woodcock’s cadence tighter than one of his meticulously crafted dresses. Woodcock isn’t a heartless monster, but he can’t afford to love his muses too freely. When he finally exposes that vulnerable interior by admitting he carries a lock of his precious mother’s hair in the fabric of his suit, it’s hard to imagine another actor so capably destroying and maintaining his character’s façade simultaneously. If he does indeed retire from acting, Phantom Thread is a triumphant end for Daniel Day-Lewis.
Ultimately, what Anderson has given us is the best dramatic film of 2017. Phantom Thread is a haunting and exquisite treatise on the complexity of love. The only way to find happiness within its suffocating embrace is to freely partake of the poison thread. Anything less means certain death.