by Alan Yudman
The fist word that comes to mind after seeing PHANTOM THREAD is “luxurious”. The second is “disturbing”. From BOOGIE NIGHTS to INHERENT VICE, the latter is Paul Thomas Anderson’s specialty. Visually stunning works of art that have a darkness just beneath the surface. His latest is no different.
The film washes over you like one of the couture dresses Reynolds Woodcock creates for the best of British society. Daniel Day-Lewis is the fastidious dress designer. He wants his life just so. He must control every aspect of it.. even his his soon to be former belle who confronts him at breakfast one morning and is gone by the afternoon. That so upsets Reynolds that he heads off to his country home. While eating breakfast (the most important meal of the day and of this movie), a waitress catches his eye. He flirts, they have dinner, he makes her a dress.. a romance is born. That waitress is Alma, played by Vicki Krieps in a dazzling performance. She has to match Day-Lewis scene for scene and holds her own dueling with one of history’s greatest actors. Holding Woodcock’s business and life together is his beloved sister Cyril, whom he calls “my old sew and sew”.. get it? Lesley Manville is also marvelous. She knows when to push and when to just go along with Woodcock’s eccentricities for the good of the business. Other characters flit in and out of the film, but it is built around these three.
It’s not hard to identify PHANTOM THREAD as a love story. How Alma falls in love with Reynolds because he lavishes her with beautiful dresses and a fine life. But she bumps up against his anal-retentiveness and tries to change him. That’s where the movie gets dark. But it is done with such style and good humor that you don’t see it coming.
It could be easy for the style to overwhelm the substance here. But Anderson would never let that happen. He uses the style to enhance the substance. The sweeping camera shots in Woodcock’s house/studio. The way the dresses flow land billow like great waves crashing over the film. The production design and cinematography are married to the score and the sound design. Jonny Greenwood’s score is marvelous and brings that sense of style and luxury to ever scene. The sound design is amazing. Every pull of a thread, every piercing of a piece of cloth, every scrape of knife of toast or chewing of food is enhanced and helps set up the tone and story. The art direction, the cinematography (Anderson is the uncredited man behind the lens), the wardrobe. It is all absolutely perfect. Nothing extraneous. Everything serves the story.
Anderson shot this in 70MM. I can’t imagine this in any other format. The use of film over digital is another perfect choice. The warmth and depth of color and imperfections cannot be matched by digital. And they fit this film perfectly.
Day-Lewis announced his retirement earlier this year, meaning that this is his final film. It is a typically outstanding performance. He has all the quirks and mannerisms of an eccentric designer down perfectly. His look, his choices cannot be matched by any other actor. When they take close ups of his hands, you can see scars from being poked by a needle. That is next level preciseness. That’s what makes a great actor. That attention to detail and he will be sorely missed.
PHANTOM THREAD takes a dark and disturbing turn in the final third of the film. It’s not unpleasant, but fits given how it was all set up. It is Anderson’s special genius to tell those kind of stories so well. He wraps the audience in beauty, but somewhere there is a Phantom Threat waiting to be pulled. That’s what makes his movies great. And that’s what makes this film one of the year’s best.