The obvious point of comparison for Phantom Thread would be Peter Strickland’s masterpiece, The Duke of Burgundy. While it is a bit of a cheap disservice to create a metric based on an adjacent film, Phantom Thread is so densely packed with, well, everything, that placing it next to something similar is the easiest method of finding my way in.
Where the two films are alike is also where they differ. The Duke of Burgundy and Phantom Thread both depict a narrative loop regarding how our protagonists function within their romantic relationship. Burgundy shows us this loop multiple times over, giving new context to the plot with each revolution. Thread focuses on just one revolution by giving us the tail end of what appears to be a pattern of behavior from a very particular, insular, even cruel man. From this point forward we get to watch as this pattern, borne from our own stereotypes, as it’s upended and maybe even broken. When I say that our behavioral expectations are based in stereotype, I don’t mean to suggest that they are inaccurate. Quite the opposite, really. I only suggest that the script relies heavily on our preconceptions to function. If it were to take time to thoroughly establish everything we’re already thinking, it would make the film fatty, and Paul Thomas Anderson, a purveyor of lengthy cinema if there ever was one, has always worked hard to keep his epics lean. Phantom Thread is no exception.
So what’s it about? Daniel Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock (no relation to the Billy Bob Thornton character), a dressmaker who is the toast of the 1950s London elite. If you’re a woman of the extreme upper class, you want a Woodcock dress. And why wouldn’t you? To have a Woodcock dress designed for you is not just to have a fine piece of clothing, it’s to have a status symbol, and a cushy experience to boot. When Reynolds Woodcock takes your measurements, he dotes, compliments, and offers kind, if firm, comments of ones physique. He’ll never insult his model, but he will describe exactly how he can enhance their traits with the application of fabric. “It is my job to make you beautiful.”
To his eternal right is his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), whom Reynolds Woodcock refers to as his “old so-and-so.” She appears to be the person in charge of keeping the Woodcock empire alive, leaving only the design of the dresses to Reynolds. When it comes to matters of business, manufacture, and even dispensing of Reynolds’ expired muses, Cyril is the one in charge. But being a spinster does not leave Cyril as some sort of Miss Havisham. Oh no, nothing of the kind. Manville’s performance suggests that her seemingly thankless station in life is one of choice, and when the story goes to bed for the night, it’s easy to imagine Cyril living happily on her own terms.
Enter Alma (Vicky Krieps, pronounced exactly as you wish it wouldn’t be), a young waitress far removed from the upper class. Perhaps it’s her deceptive plainness that catches Reynolds’ attention, perhaps it’s just lust, but whatever the case, she becomes his new lover and muse. But since she only knows the elite class as an outsider, she brings to the situation a fiery intensity that many of the upper class would find uncouth, as well as a confidence which both draws Reynolds in, and disrupts his fastidious ways.
To draw comparison once again to The Duke of Burgundy, what we end up watching, although much more explicitly in Strickland’s film, is a power exchange between lovers. Egos clash, but not so much as desires. Competing desires can often create a colorful relationship, but when paired with ego and routine, it becomes difficult to gauge just how much compromise a lover is willing to extend. Is a maintained routine a recipe for success or for boredom? What neither film allows for, however, is judgment. It will be interesting to see how current gender and sexual politics will paint the reception of this film, but perhaps I’m being shortsighted. The themes of The Duke of Burgundy were not lost on even the most vanilla audience, and I hope that in reckoning with the atypical (and sometimes depraved) natures of the romance between Reynolds and Alma, the film’s intentions will rise to the top.
Upon further thought, I bet they will. It’s that good.
As a hardcore P.T. Anderson fan (Boogie Nights remains my all-time favorite film), it’s been a treat to watch as his more obtrusive style has been dissolved. He hasn’t gotten rid of the flair which defined his earlier work, but he has worked the flair into texture. In that respect, Phantom Thread is simply decadent. Delicious in every way. Much like Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, or Chan-wook Park’s The Handmaiden, every small detail feels thoroughly. From the lighting, to the wallpaper, down to the needle wounds visible on the fingers of the Woodcock’s tireless team of seamstresses, Anderson and his team have woven (ha!) a piece of cinematic perfection. It is, without a doubt, a movie.
What I mean is that Phantom Thread wouldn’t work just on paper. It wouldn’t work solely as a visual tone-piece either. It’s a complete movie that uses all aspects of the medium to tell its tale. It feels both dense and lean by virtue of it being created at the hands of a master filmmaker. Not a master storyteller, not a master director, but a master filmmaker. PTA makes films. Always has.
Johnny Greenwood is back once again to do the score, and I have a feeling that it may be a point of contention for some viewers. When the movie begins, the music almost feels like a theme. It’s as if we are watching a brochure advertising a stay in Hotel Woodcock. I imagine that it could be jarring for some, especially since, as I said before, the plot is not made apparent at the outset. It would be easy to read this as a sort of cinematic flailing, but in my opinion, that would be a misread. For me, the brash score declining into a more classically functional one is vintage PTA style. And as a fan of Greenwood, it’s a delight to hear him work with a decidedly different set of instruments.
Of course no review of Phantom Thread is complete without mentioning that this is supposedly D-Day’s final film. Personally, I think he’s just doing method research for a future role where he will play an actor who’s about to retire, but no matter. If this is indeed his swan song, it’s a great way to go out. Of COURSE he nails it. Of COURSE he disappears into the role. Of COURSE he turns every word into a goddamn poem … but so does the rest of the cast. Tens all around. Krieps is a new discovery for me and she’s absolutely enchanting. It’s easy to see why Reynolds finds Alma so intoxicating when you’ve got an actress with the raw power of Vicky Krieps dancing effortlessly around one of the all-time greats. Same goes for Lesley Manville. In fact, she has THE moment of the film, and it all comes down to her delivery. You’ll know it when you see it.
Second place goes to what we’ll call “an argument over dinner.”
I may be biased, being such a huge PTA fan and all, but it’s hard to overstate what’s been accomplished here. I don’t like to retroactively change my Top Ten of any year, what with lists being generally pointless and all, and I will proudly let mine stand as is, but had I seen Phantom Thread earlier, mine would certainly look different.
One last thing I should mention. Phantom Thread is a comedy. Outright. And a very funny one at that.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.