Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson’s early work was defined by a search for surrogate family, specifically relationships having to do with father figures. In Hard Eight, gambling expert Sydney takes the down-on-his-luck John under his wing, teaching him how to win at the casinos. John becomes his protégé and symbolic son. In Boogie Nights, porn star Dirk Diggler finds a father in his director, Jack Horner. That movie is more broadly about a collection of misfits in the 1970s porn scene coming together as a kind of dysfunctional family. The movie Magnolia is rife with broken family dynamics.
In the background of these movies about substitute family is the theme of power dynamics. As Anderson’s career has progressed, the two themes have slowly traded places in importance. This transition culminated in Anderson’s exquisite The Master. The lost Freddie Quell finds a kind of father figure in the charismatic Lancaster Dodd, but that’s secondary to the power and control the cult leader exerts over his new disciple. The entire movie is a battle of wills between the two men.
In Phantom Thread, the writer-director’s new film, the battle of wills this time is between a man and a woman. They are lovers as well as muse and artist. Reynolds Woodcock is the premier dressmaker in 1950s London couture fashion. At the beginning of the film, Reynolds has tired of his most recent lover/muse, and his sister, Cyril, suggests it’s time to send her packing. He is reluctant, but Cyril is Reynolds’ most trusted advisor and handler, so he agrees to the decision. Soon after, he meets Alma, a waitress in a restaurant. Reynolds is immediately taken with Alma, and he asks her out on a date not long after she takes his order. The rest of the movie is about who will command more power in the relationship, Reynolds or Alma. Complicating things is Cyril, who wields her own power in this triangle.
Because Phantom Thread is so much about power, it’s fitting that one of the main characters is an artist at the top of his profession, universally respected and admired. Because of his position, Reynolds is allowed to behave in ways that people would never tolerate from we mere mortals. This genius is temperamental, to say the least. His unwavering need to have everything around him just so is the major source of conflict between Reynolds and Alma.
Anderson has always shown a devilish sense of humor in his work, so several of these heated exchanges operate on the driest of humor. Alma’s first breakfast in her new home is a wonderful example. Reynolds must have complete quiet during his breakfast ritual. He sees this crucial period as setting the tone for the rest of his day. Anderson hilariously draws out the scene as Alma scrapes butter across her toast and bangs the tea kettle down after filling her cup. Reynolds’ reaction is akin to that of Jack Torrance in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining when Wendy interrupts his writing.
That’s not the only movie Anderson riffs on here. It was a delight when I found several other film references tucked away in the corners of Phantom Thread. During a fashion show held at Reynolds’ house/studio, Alma walks into the room where the audience waits, displaying one of Reynolds’ impeccable dresses. He’s in the adjacent room, preparing the next model for her turn. He can’t help himself, though, he must see his muse modeling his creation. He walks to a door that connects the two rooms and looks through a peephole. The shot of the light hitting Reynolds’ pupil is a beautiful homage to the same famous composition in Hitchcock’s Psycho, as well as to the obsession the main character in that film has for his own muse.
The relationship between Alma and Cyril brings to mind another Hitchcock classic. In Rebecca, the never named protagonist falls in love with Maxim de Winter, a wealthy widower. They wed after a (for the time) scandalously short courtship. When she moves into the mansion on her new husband’s estate, she is confronted with the distrustful housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who is obsessed with Maxim’s dead first wife, Rebecca. The struggle that Alma and Cyril engage in to be closer to Reynolds in Phantom Thread is somewhat similar to that of the second Mrs. de Winter and Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca.
It’s an apt tribute, considering the two films take place during the same time period, and in the same country. Anderson recreates 1950s London splendidly. The cinematography is rich and sumptuous. It looks different, yet just as beautiful as The Master, which is also set in the 50s. I wish I knew who to credit for its refined look, but there is some debate about who served as Phantom Thread’s director of photography. Robert Elswit – Anderson’s regular cinematographer – was reported as unavailable to shoot the movie, and sources said Anderson was taking on the responsibility himself. Anderson later refuted those claims, saying the cinematography on Phantom Thread was a “collaborative effort,” so no one person is credited in the role.
There is no confusion about who should get the credit for Phantom Thread’s gorgeous score. This is the fourth collaboration between Anderson and composer (as well as Radiohead guitarist/keyboardist) Jonny Greenwood. It’s a complex, beautiful orchestration, and is almost omnipresent in the movie. It’s not quite as idiosyncratic or memorable as Greenwood’s masterpiece-level work in Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, but it’s damned close.
Paul Thomas Anderson is examining a lot of themes here. There’s romantic power, professional power, artistic obsession, the relationship between muse and artist, and familial relationships. Underneath all that, Phantom Thread is a love story, albeit an unconventional and challenging one. It’s also cold and distancing.
As much as I enjoyed it, I never felt emotionally connected to it until the last act. Phantom Thread makes a turn in the last 45 minutes that I can’t write about here, because it would irreparably spoil the movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it. This turn – it’s not quite a twist – changes the entire thrust of the film. It shocked me a little, and it brought me closer to the characters and story than I had felt for the first two-thirds of the movie. Anderson has a prankster streak running through him, and he employs it to subversive effect in Phantom Thread. It’s one of his most intriguing movies, and he’s made more than a few of those already.
Why it got 4 stars:
- Phantom Thread is teeming with ideas. It's a very curious movie and I found myself turning it over in my mind again and again. What it lacks in emotional connection, it makes up for in genuinely interesting storytelling.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I should probably be flogged for not mentioning the performances at all in the main review. I just had too much to get to concerning the movie itself. Daniel Day-Lewis is Reynolds, and it's a very restrained performance. His over-the-top acting in movies like Gangs of New York or There Will be Blood turned some people off (I love him in both), and his dialed back interpretation of Reynolds proves Day-Lewis has an incredible range. He's announced this will be his last screen performance. We'll see. Vicky Krieps plays Alma with a naivete that transforms into a deviousness by the end of the movie. Lesley Manville is a brilliant manipulator as Cyril, a woman not used to having her power challenged.
- The name Reynolds Woodcock is pure P.T. Anderson.
- The artist/muse dynamic, and the fact that Reynolds has had many such muses, put me in mind of 2017's mother! The two movies would make a dynamite double feature.
- Really good art often makes you reflect on yourself, and this movie did that. I was forced to think about my own tendencies when it comes to my behavior when I'm frustrated. It's one of my worst qualities, and I'm always striving to be better about it.
- That ending! If you've seen Phantom Thread, call me, we'll talk about it!
Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
- People who loudly ask questions about the movie to the person they are with, loud enough so that I can hear each word from 10 seats down, baffle me. WHY? WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS?!? EXAMINE YOUR LIFE!
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- The 2018 Oscar nominations were announced earlier this week. I was devastated that The Florida Project was snubbed for Best Picture. If you haven't seen it, please go out of your way to do so. I was quite happy that I had seen eight out of the nine nominees. I usually go six or seven out of nine or ten when they are announced, depending on how many they nominate. I have successfully written about every Best Picture nominee since starting this website, and so far, I've written about seven of the nine 2018 nominees. Next week, I'll make it eight, because I'll be looking at Darkest Hour, the WWII drama with Gary Oldman transforming himself to play Winston Churchill.