Phantom Thread: A Masterpiece Weaving Together Love and Art
Phantom Thread follows the life of an obsessive and neurotic, albeit brilliant, 1950’s British couturier named Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis). Mr. Woodcock and his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), run the extremely prestigious haute couture shop called the “House of Woodcock”. Reynolds insists that he follows an extremely precise schedule to produce the highest quality, beautiful dresses. One day, he meets the lovely young immigrant Alma (Vicky Krieps), and the two fall for each other. Reynolds invites her to join his elegant lifestyle, making wonderful gowns and dresses that “make her feel perfect.” However, living with Reynolds is no easy task for Alma. He is bothered by the smallest disturbances — ranging from buttering one’s bread too loudly, to cooking asparagus in butter instead of “oil and lots of salt,” as he prefers. Alma begins to worry that Reynolds is losing interest in her; in order to regain his erratic attention and acquire his undivided love, Alma attempts to uncover both the secrets inside Reynold’s mind, as well as the source of inspiration for all his exquisite dresses.
Daniel Day Lewis disappears completely into the role of Reynolds Woodcock as expected. Throughout his career Lewis has shown an uncanny ability to nail any role he has been assigned to, whether that means portraying intense physical transformations as in My Left Foot, boisterous and over-the-top characters like in There Will Be Blood, or providing identical impressions to historical figures like Lincoln. However, in Phantom Thread, he does none of the aforementioned things. His take on Reynolds Woodcock is a masterclass of small facial expressions and ticks, and he eats up every line of dialogue he’s given. He nails the nuances of the character such as his walk and the way he sits; these tiny gestures add a whole new dimension and history the character of Reynolds and is reaffirms why, in my opinion, Lewis is the best actor alive.
While Lewis’ performance is remarkable, it’s really Vicky Krieps who knocks it out of the park and steals the show as Alma. She goes toe to toe with Lewis, and her fearless performances makes the relationship struggles between Alma and Reynolds all the more believable, engaging the audience deeper into the film. Furthermore, she displays remarkable chemistry with Mr. Lewis and excels at being charming and affectionate while maintaining a secretive yet menacing dark side that is slowly uncovered as the movie progresses.
On the surface, Phantom Thread seems like a simple story about the tumultuous relationship between a man who loves his work, and a woman who loves that man. However, at its core, the movie actually functions as a case study into examining what drives artists into creating magnificent works of art — in this case, luxury dress-making. Phantom Thread becomes an extremely personal and intimate film, and interestingly enough, provides serious parallels between Mr. Woodcock and the film’s director, Paul Thomas Anderson.
In Phantom Thread, both Reynolds Woodcock and the director himself are auteurs who put all their time and energy into channeling ideas and their imaginations into vessels of beauty and pleasure. As a result of their hard labor and unique ideas, both are miles ahead of their other peers of the craft. While dress-making and filmmaking may seem like two totally different tasks, they are more similar than many realize.
In the film, Mr. Woodcock relies not only on his own imagination to create marvelous pieces, but mostly on all the hard work of everyone he employs: the intricate details wouldn’t be possible without the seamstresses; the customer’s desire to purchase his dresses not possible without the models who advertise and display his work to the public; the shipment and delivery wouldn’t happen without the management of Cyril. Mr. Woodcock is little more than just the house’s director whose name is attached to the final product. This exact same analogy can be applied to Mr. Anderson’s filmmaking process with how he oversees the director of photography, the actors, the camera crew, the editors, and the studio producers in order to maintain a finished product that he can be ultimately satisfied with. However, if all those little pieces of the puzzle are not working in tandem to come together, the end result will be a jumbled mess
There is a scene in Phantom Thread where Reynolds has a mini temper tantrum when Cyril mentions that a loyal customer has gone to visit another prestigious couture house in search of something more “chic”. Mr. Woodcock replies to this knowledge with a curt and explicit angry shout of “what the fu*k does that word even mean?” Throughout his career, Mr. Anderson has also continuously demonstrated his indifference to the fads and popular tropes of modern filmmaking. His past films do not slow down to make sure the audience is paying attention, and he does not neatly hand-deliver messages and themes like other contemporary filmmakers do. His style has been described by some pundits such as A. O. Scott of the New York Times as being “more interested in what his movies are that in what they’re about or who they might be about.”
Mr. Anderson’s creative blend of artistic ingenuity and realistic depictions makes many of his films feel like a classic novel full of dense and complicated themes, engaging and relatable stories, as well as likable characters. The end result is that Mr. Anderson’s films consistently challenge the audience as viewer, and forces them to come to their own conclusions. As a result, Mr. Anderson’s movies are not always easy to process upon first viewing. However, the striking visual motifs and carefully concocted relationships between characters reward repeat viewings and thorough analysis, and therefore make his films irresistible works of art.
In the case of Phantom Thread, Mr. Anderson has succeeded in creating another sensational work of art that is able to blend romance, humor, dread, beauty, and grace into a refined blend. For such a simple concept that some might even call drab and boring, Phantom Thread actually manages to consistently engage the audience. Personally, going into the film I didn’t have the slightest clue of what went into dressmaking and wasn’t exactly dying to find out. However, as the movie progressed I found myself slowly leaning closer and closer to the edge of my seat, drawn in as Mr. Anderson patiently and elegantly blended the colors, sounds, and characters of the movie together like a painter creating a magnificent piece of art.
1. In 2017 The New York Times named “There Will Be Blood” as the best movie of the 21st century so far https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/06/09/movies/the-25-best-films-of-the-21st-century.html.