“You can sew almost anything into the canvas of a coat,” is what Reynolds Woodcock says – hiding secrets within the garments that he makes for others to be worn. I like to think that Paul Thomas Anderson himself took those words into heart, and Phantom Thread is a canvas for himself. It’s a canvas for himself in the sense that we already have an idea of where our expectations are placed based alone on the setting of Phantom Thread and the cast members involved. But how exactly can we point out what is Paul Thomas Anderson’s own secret? All I know is that Phantom Thread is a film that is every bit as exquisite as the clothing as part of the story it is telling, not a tiny bit less beautiful.
Reynolds Woodcock is a dedicated dressmaker in 1950’s London, who works together with his sister Cyril. Together, they have designed clothes for members of the royal family, socialites, and popular stars among many others. The dedication has made the clothing that came from the House of Woodcock so distinctive upon many others, because of how meticulously has Reynolds Woodcock stuck to said routine – but soon he finds that it will be challenged. While on a trip outside, he meets a young waitress by the name of Alma Elson and falls in love. But as she ends up becoming his own muse, Alma proves herself to become another test for Reynolds’s own obsession – for maybe she and him have a lot more in common than suspected.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s distinctive visual style finds yet another sense of awe in Phantom Thread, for it also compliments the complex psychology of such a work. This is a movie that is fittingly obsessed with the way that it looks and as time progresses it only tries to find a new look to adapt with its pacing, almost akin to Reynolds Woodcock’s own personality. And yet even amidst all the beauty that its setting and appearance can provide, it still feels so cold. But the coldness of the beauty reaffirms its falseness, no matter how much we try to find it – and it all creates a perfect irony. It all creates a perfect irony because of the fact that the beauty lies within the illusion of searching for it, as Reynolds Woodcock has gotten himself caught into. This film takes on so many different looks because it moves like an illusion.
Somehow, in the most discomforting moments, Paul Thomas Anderson manages to play along with a sense of humour. It tells a love story between an artist and his muse, even as either side feels a need to be on top of the other. In some of the darkest moments, you laugh and then it makes the next moment feel more uneasy. But that’s how you find yourself getting absorbed within the relationship at the center of this narrative, it is completely uneasy. It’s uneasy because a romance that blossomed at first between a sophisticated dressmaker and a waitress from a lower class who soon became his muse turns into a relationship between master and servant, only the roles reverse themselves in order to the provocative nature of their relationship. And to say that Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps bring so much energy to their performance undersells their efforts. In what may be Daniel Day-Lewis’s final performance, you feel dedication that plays a long like his own character, but Vicky Krieps isn’t one to be ignored. It simply cannot be ignored how multi-faceted her own role as Alma is, going from a loving and tender muse to Reynolds Woodcock to one determined to catch his attention – feeling like the perfect mirror for Woodcock himself.
I love how this film doesn’t feel as if it needs to adhere to the narrative it presents on the spot. In some sense I almost felt I was being reminded of how Paul Thomas Anderson turned what would have been a simple romantic comedy into the complex look of a damaged man as he falls in love. With watching Phantom Thread, it plays along like an Alfred Hitchcock movie based on the thematic content: voyeurism, obsession, male frailty. All of this works under the guise of a romance, but what Paul Thomas Anderson works with the Hitchcock influence (most notably Rebecca) is something of another level. Paul Thomas Anderson isn’t interested in telling straight up a tale of the love between Reynolds and Alma, but their lack of love and what measures it will take for it to finally flourish.
I don’t know what else to say about Phantom Thread that probably hasn’t been said before, but the very subtlety and quietness of the film as it tries new looks upon itself only makes for a unique experience – the sort that only a director like Paul Thomas Anderson could have formed. Everything looks so elegant, whether it be the production, Jonny Greenwood’s score, the camerawork, or the performances, and yet beneath all of that is another obsessive journey of trying to find perfection – even if it alienates yourself. But how does all of it add up? You can only ask Paul Thomas Anderson himself, because he certainly knows the answer. If this is truly going to be Daniel Day-Lewis’s final performance, to say that he leaves on a high note would be an understatement.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Focus Features.
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Screenplay by Paul Thomas Anderson
Produced by Paul Thomas Anderson, Megan Ellison, JoAnne Sellar, Daniel Lupi
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville
Release Year: 2017
Running Time: 130 minutes