Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Runtime: 130 minutes
Up until this past Monday night, I had never seen a Paul Thomas Anderson film at the cinema. This is probably a poor effort on my part, considering he is widely touted as one of the foremost auteurs of our generation. I have tried to work my way through his oeuvre before, and I remember enjoying Boogie Nights (1997), though I doubt anyone would find a foray into the Golden Age of Porn unenjoyable. But The Master (2012), a psychological drama chronicling one man’s experiences with a religious cult, still didn’t convince me of Anderson’s appeal.
However, after attending a screening of Phantom Thread, Anderson’s newest drama, I am now firmly in agreement with his mastery in the portrayal of human dysfunction.
Phantom Thread is set in 1950s London, principally at the fashion house of Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a renowned designer of couture dresses for the upper class. Reynolds lives with his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), who also manages his daily operations. While visiting the countryside, Reynolds meets and begins a romantic relationship with Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps), a waitress. Anderson ponders whether love is inherently natural, as Alma must negotiate her affection to appease Reynolds’ aggressive, child-like compulsion for order and routine.
Daniel Day-Lewis reminds us why he is the only male actor to ever receive three Academy Awards in the Lead Actor category. While making modifications to his masterpieces, Reynolds furrows his brow in concentration and purses his lips to hold onto sewing needles. This is Daniel Day-Lewis’ genius; he substitutes theatricality with subtlety to fully embody the psychology and physicality of a real designer. Likewise, while working on his latest sketches, he glares over his glasses at those unknowingly disrupting his process, thereby demonstrating Reynolds’ obsession to avoid the uncertain and discomforting. Krieps and Manville hold their own as the only women in Reynolds’ life, at once submitting to his peculiar whims and then passively undermining them.
And the production side of things is equally delightful. Every shot of Phantom Thread is like taking a bite out of the finest caramel-filled chocolate, followed up by a sip of aged wine that corresponds perfectly. Anderson steers clear of typical high-key lighting and opts for a naturalistic alternative. He allows enough light to accentuate the characters’ vacillating facial expressions, but maintains considerable shadows to foreground the conflicting tensions and motivations between Reynolds and Alma.
The lush fixtures and furnishings represent the immaculate and harmonious world to which Reynolds has become accustomed. Meanwhile, John Greenwood does wonders with the original score. He draws upon melodic and strained violin chords, respectively, to suggest the divinity of Reynolds’ and Alma’s coming together, and then the begrudging terms of their relationship.
Phantom Thread would have undoubtedly suffered without Mark Bridge’s costume design. He mirrors Reynolds’ disdain for the chic, and he graces us with full-figured dresses that are classical and regal.
Phantom Thread was alluring and astounding. Love is presented as an apparition, one that initially seems blissful and carefree. However, Anderson removes the smokescreen to reveal a ceaseless fight for solidarity or isolation, for familiarity or change, a ceaseless fight to love someone despite their weaknesses.