Phantom Thread (2017)
Written & Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
In 1950s London, Reynolds Woodcock is a dress designer the women of the monied class flock to. He’s responsible for the dresses of royalty and the privileged. He operates out of a lavish home, with the day to day operations overseen by his sister, Cyril. Reynolds is controlling and obsessive, with both work and the women he brings into his life. Over time he becomes exhausted, having consumed them to the point of boredom. Then Reynolds boxes them out emotionally leaving their disposal to Cyril. On a brief respite to the countryside, he meets Alma, a young waitress and she becomes the next conquest for his appetite. In a whirlwind, she moves into his home in London, becomes his muse, yet quickly learns about the complicated relationship he has with Cyril, as well as the fact her days are numbered in this place.
Paul Thomas Anderson has begun to corner the market on taut cinematic drama. This picture, There Will Be Blood, and The Master all serve as prime examples of his shift from Altman-esque cacophony to a scalpel-like precision in execution (Inherent Vice is the one work I am still on the fence about, hoping to one day re-examine and re-evaluate that film). Every shot, every piece of dialogue, every glance or reaction is so fine-tuned and leads to one of the best movies I have seen in this short year so far and likely remain that way for the remainder of 2018.
One of the primary notes for someone going into this film is knowing that this is not necessarily a Daniel Day-Lewis vehicle. I would argue that the film belongs to Vicky Krieps, a Luxembourgian actress who plays Alma. Once she is introduced into the narrative a few minutes into the movie, the perspective and momentum of the picture belong to her. Krieps manages to hold her own against Day-Lewis who is also at the top of his game. She delivers a performance that possesses a deep strength while navigating the potentially volatile waters of her relationship with Reynolds. When they finally do have a substantial direct confrontation, eschewing all pretense of civil niceties, it is dirty and raw. She doesn’t walk away wounded, however, and Alma digs her heels in responding very coldly.
Daniel Day-Lewis is no slouch, reminding us once again why we consider him one of the great film actors of our age. It is almost unbelievable that this is the same man who played Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. The mannerisms, physicality, and demeanor of these characters could not be more different yet so perfectly capture the nature of their respective nations. The similarities are that Reynolds and Plainview are both men who savor their power over others, who actively subjugate others to their whims. While Plainview wishes to be rid of all people and have his mansion to himself in the finale, Reynolds demands he has people there to perform his maddening dance of submission. He lives in emotional cycles of hunger, satiation, boredom, frailty, and then hunger again. The women he invites into his home are unwitting victims of this cycle and his sister, Cyril is the one who enables it to exercise her own personal sense of power.
Once Alma first figures out how Reynolds operates she sums it up to him as a game he forces people in his life to play. Reynolds plays incredulous, but we can see that she has cut through to the core of emotional manipulations. Alma ultimately plays the game quite well which leads to the movie’s arguably horrific conclusion. Director Anderson manages to create one of the darkest, most twisted love stories you are likely to see on screen. While works like 50 Shades of Grey present themselves with the external paraphernalia of dark sexual relationships, Phantom Thread conveys the actual psychology. Suffering becomes essential to Reynolds and Alma’s love and leads to a happy ending of sorts.