Welcome back movie lovers! Now that the holiday fog has lifted and screens aren't being tied up by Disney's really upsetting screening requirements for their latest Star War, the rest of us are getting a chance to look at some of the films that snuck in at the end of the year. For me, that meant getting out to Phantom Thread.
This is the latest from eclectic writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, and the supposed swan song of legendary actor Daniel Day-Lewis. In my estimation, neither disappointed.
The film is the story of Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis), a fastidious high-end dressmaker in 1950s London. He meets and becomes involved with strong-willed Alma (Vicky Krieps), and a provocative relationship ensues.
As with Anderson's other films, 'Thread' almost develops its own cinematic language. People have criticized them for being opaque or unsympathetically misanthropic. I think those readings are tremendously flawed. I believe he throws some audiences because, in many ways, his films do not function like most tend to. They often have no endgame, no fixed narrative point toward which everything hurdles or grand mystery to unwrap. Instead, they explore relationships, often through a series of interactions that may or may not build off each other or lead to one another directly, but that combine to form complete portraits. Characters are contradictory, feature uncomfortable elements, and subvert genre expectations. 'Thread' does this within the confines of postwar England, draped in a beautiful, inviting claustrophobia.
It wears the clothes of a period costume drama. I've heard comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca, comparisons which are, I think, appropriate. But it is also, perhaps more so, one of the most subversively provocative films to come out in a good while. 'Thread,' over the course of its two-plus hours, asks repeatedly the question: "Is love, either as an act or idea, inherently selfish?" And it answers that question with a resounding "Yes!--but that is no bad thing."
An example: Toward the middle of the film, Alma decides she wants to "surprise" Reynolds with a dinner she has prepared for him. It is how she must show him she loves him. Reynolds, however, is decidedly not pleased with her gesture; indeed he feels attacked, asking her in exaggerated jest if she has a gun as well.
We, like Alma, are hard-wired to assume that romantic gestures are and should only be taken as the well-meaning tokens they are. We tell ourselves they are meant for the benefit of the lover, but how often are they designed more for our own gratification? 'Thread' sees this, calls it out, and then settles on that being perfectly acceptable.
Love (even the emotional type of love explored in the film) is, after all, an appetite. And appetites can only be satisfied by the requirements of the one that hungers, not the one that supplies.
All of this is wrapped up in a superbly-written, ravishingly photographed battle of two persistently immovable people. And did I mention the score? Johnny Greenwood has produced some incredible scores during his decade of collaboration with Anderson, but he has far outdone himself here. It is by turns overwhelming romantic and deeply unsettling, taking influence from Debussy and old Hollywood romances: a perfect counterpoint to a film that flirts with and defies those same states. See it for no other reason than to bask in the sounds he conjures for a couple of hours.
There is also, of course, the leading performance by Daniel Day-Lewis (matched perfectly by Vicky Krieps, thankfully with a long career ahead of her yet). It shows the kind of control we have come to expect from him, with impossible nuances of expression in a character who spends the entirety of the film in essentially a single gear. It is a delight to behold, and I am glad to know it will be his final performance. It is a worthy send-off for a modern master, and one that will continue to yield fruit as the film ages.
So, yes, go see Phantom Thread. Go find a theatre showing it and support them. Go enjoy this complicated, demanding, and exquisitely delicate piece of motion picture art.
Phantom Thread features Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, and Leslie Manville, and is rated R for a little bit of angry swearsing.
Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
by Chase Harrison