Review: Phantom Thread (2017)


Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread is an arresting work of art, one that is hard to classify or describe apart from a discussion of its genre and form. It’s a romantic drama in a sense; but the romance is not conventional by any means, shifting from what we initially think to be an artist-muse relationship to one that could justifiably be called deviant, even kinky, perhaps. The work as a whole could pass for a film from the 1970s or 1980s, or perhaps even the 1940s, had it been shot in black and white and the Jonny Greenwood score were excised. It’s firmly rooted in the 20th century, not only in its setting and 35mm cinematography by Anderson and a team of cameramen and lighting professionals (there’s no sole director of photography credited here), but also in its texture, which conjures a tactile atmosphere that is almost impossible to manage in the age of digital cinema—only the films of James Gray are as convincingly analog.

All of this is to say that Phantom Thread is beguiling and hard to distill into simple descriptors. It’s a film that leaves you with many feelings that openly conflict with each other, as the narrative and the themes refuse easy closure. It’s also ravishing in its beauty and formal power. The plot revolves around Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a couture designer of dresses for royals and wealthy women in 1950s London. Along with his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), he leads a meticulous life in a downtown mansion, with every moment of his day ordered around his work and his particular habits for inspiration. Enter Alma (Vicky Krieps), an ordinary waitress who catches his eye and becomes his romantic and artistic muse. However, as she integrates into the household and finds her own lack of autonomy stifling, she begins to chaff against Reynolds’ overt control and try to establish her own rhythms for their relationship and his work.

Like many of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, Phantom Thread is about the struggle to establish control, over one’s self, one’s habits, and one’s partners. If There Will Be Blood saw that struggle born out through capitalism and religious fervour, and The Master furthered the exploration of religion and threw post-war trauma and masculinity into the mix, Phantom Thread is more about romantic relationships and artistry than institutional or societal forces of power. As the relationship between Reynolds and Alma alternatively heats up and cools down, we get demonstrations of a shifting power dynamic and the solipsism of many romantic relationships.

In particular, a surprise dinner that Alma plans for Reynolds is a masterwork of generating frustration, one that erupts over the preparation of asparagus—Reynolds likes it with salt and oil, while Alma cooks it with butter—and brings out all the grievances of both individuals. It’s easy to think that Reynolds holds most of the blame for their relationship woes, but Anderson is too intelligent to make the relationship a one-sided affair, with Reynolds a controlling man and Alma an earnest victim. 

For instance, this dinner is a deliberate frustration of Reynolds' routines and taste on Alma’s part; Cyril warns her that Reynolds does not enjoy surprises and Reynolds himself is very adamant about what foods he does and does not like. She knows that Reynolds will not like the meal and goes forward with it anyway, as if daring him to express his displeasure and air his grievances without anyone else around.

Anderson and the performers are smart here in painting a portrait of two people at cross-purposes in the dynamic of their relationship, but who fundamentally want the other around in order to live their ideal lives. It shows how even though Reynolds is more flamboyantly stubborn than Alma, Alma too refuses to budge her conceptions of what their relationship ought to be. To say that Phantom Thread is about the love affair between an unstoppable force and an immovable object would not be wrong.

This power struggle develops in shocking ways, which almost threaten to tip the film over into Gothic horror. However, Anderson veers away from going too far down any one generic rabbit hole, keeping Phantom Thread moving into new confrontations and thus new avenues to explore relationships and the habits of artistry. 

As much as the film is a look at a dysfunctional (or perhaps atypically-functional) relationship, it’s also a statement on the habits of artistry. In many ways, it’s as self-reflexive as Darren Aronofsky’s mother!. In fact, from the way it draws inevitable comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and even Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2, you’d think that Phantom Thread is delving into Anderson’s own artistic proclivities and the ways that he shares authorship with his collaborators. Surely there are similarities between the couture dresses that Reynolds makes for wealthy patrons and the art films that Paul Thomas Anderson crafts for discerning viewers; while both are great works of art from demanding authors, they are both the work of more than one individual. As well, neither Reynolds' dresses nor Anderson's films are meant for the common person. They are artworks for refined palettes.

Perhaps beyond the weighty themes about artistry and love, the impeccable performances full of physical and psychological insight, and the surprising amount of humour, the most satisfying aspect of Phantom Thread is its atmosphere of pure cinema. From the alternatingly discordant and sweeping tones of Jonny Greenwood’s score to the delicate camerawork to the texture of the costumes and the way the windows diffuse the sunlight pouring into the Woodcocks’ London mansion, Phantom Thread is an aesthetic delight. Every frame bursts with vibrancy. Anderson has never been more restrained in his camera movements and yet the film is anything but still. The camera sweeps through the rooms of the mansion or depicts the raucous merrymaking of a New Year’s Eve Party with the same elegance as the curves and folds in the fabric of Reynolds’s dresses.

Phantom Thread is an exceptional film. Subsequent viewings will reveal more of its many secrets, from its profound reflections on romance and artistry to the intricacies of its camerawork, but even on one viewing, the power of its art is abundantly clear. Anderson is clearly in the master stage of his career.

9 out of 10

Phantom Thread (USA, 2017)

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville, Vicky Krieps.