Film Review: Phantom Thread (2017)
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Review by: Belle McIntyre
This film about an obsessive perfectionist who has the same characteristics as it’s principal subject, a rarified British couturier in 1950’s London. Reynolds Woodcock, played with an exaggerated attention to detail by the impeccable Daniel Day-Lewis, is almost labored in it’s exploration of the idiosyncratic habits and demands of this man in service to his art. I was immediately reminded of Tom Ford’s first film, A Single Man, whose inner life was revealed through his daily habits and control of the details of his universe. Like his protagonist, Anderson meticulously creates the world of Reynolds Woodcock and his studio, which is creating garments of exquisite beauty and flawless craftsmanship. The camera swoons over luxurious fabrics, hands engaged in minute details, workrooms as pristine as hospital operating rooms and sublime dresses emerging from one man’s creativity and the labor of many. It is rather like a bee colony where there is one undisputed source of everything that invests the colony with its raison d’etre.
His protective shell allows him primacy in his cocooned existence. It gives him permission to treat everyone else as thoroughly dispensable. His egocentricity is complete. He is aided in the maintenance of this delicate ecosystem by his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), his sole personal relationship. She possessively protects him with a chilly, calculating manner reminiscent of Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca. His carefully proscribed world seems intact until he meets the awkward and unlikely Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress who works near his country house. He subtly toys with her and when she seems able to hold her own he asks her out for dinner. Gradually the dance turns into something resembling a combination of courtship and indentured servitude as he entices her to come with him to London and live with him in the house he shares with his sister and his atelier - as his muse and in-house model.
Alma could not be more polar opposite to Reynolds. She is young, unsophisticated, malleable and vulnerable which keeps her in line for a while as she navigates a thoroughly alien world way beyond anything she ever imagined. But the intensity of the time spent within this closed and controlled universe allows her to feel emboldened to reveal her feelings toward Reynolds - a potential deal breaker in the past. In this case, however, it seems that she has somehow managed to pierce the impenetrable carapace of the sanctified genius. This is when the story gets some narrative traction and begins to have a Hitchcockian flavor.
The relationship is anything but normal. Based on Reynolds practical dependence on Alma and his tendency to emotionally distance anything that distracts him from his obsession with his work, Alma learns, from an act of passive aggressive retaliation toward him, a tactic that can turn the tables and give her the temporary upper hand. The whole dynamic takes on a subtle and beautifully mannered sadomasochistic quality which, ironically, allows them the means to remain viable to each other. The absence of any overt sex and the focus on the psychology of the characters renders an extremely well dressed portrait of a relationship.
The miracle of this film is that while watching, it seemed drawn out and yet, as I write, it feels perfectly calibrated. For this Anderson deserves credit. However, I’m not sure any other actor could hold an audience in its thrall the way that the obsessively watchable Daniel Day-Lewis can. I truly hope that he goes back on his declaration that this will be his last film. No one inhabits and illuminates a character like this superb actor. We will probably have to count on Paul Thomas Anderson for that and hope he can deliver. He seems to know no bounds.