“Phantom Thread” unwraps the mind of a dressmaker
January 25, 2018
“Phantom Thread” is a film composed of white rooms with white women in white uniforms, working with white cloth on a white table. In fact, only a few scenes take place outside of this domain—fragments of walks down seaside cliffs, jittery drives through British farmlands and celebratory meals in a restaurant make unhurried appearances across the two-hour-plus runtime of this stately affair. Each shot is rich and warmly colored with maroons or pastels; what’s more, they are uniformly pleasant, even as uneasiness and doubt cast their shadow on the film. The movie takes place in 1950s London high-society and intimately explores the mind of a genius, renowned dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock. In its essence, however, “Phantom Thread” is a romance—tortured, neurotic and distinctly the work of Paul Thomas Anderson.
At the helms as director, Anderson exhibits superlative control and measure. Just like a dressmaker must reveal no seams, Anderson weaves an air-tight narrative of extreme complexity and tension using only psychology. The script is impeccably naturalistic, letting neuroses emerge from shifts of dialogue, turns of phrase and silence. Scarcely noticeable shifts of character ripple and lay wake to pristine sets, underlining a distinct unsettlement that permeates the film: Every slamming car door evokes an accident, every sidelong glance reveals a murder and love is instilled with sinister psychopathy in Anderson’s hands. Most importantly, Anderson gives us, once again, something to really chew on. As a rule, he presents more questions than answers and keeps moral commentary to a minimum, which has always been rewarding for viewers and a genuine breath of fresh air in this critical landscape.
The casting is equally measured. Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays Woodcock, made a Balenciaga dress from scratch in preparation for his role— his swansong performance. Day-Lewis is the perfect vision of an unstable artist, balancing moments of wry agitation with those of pure vulnerability. Alma, Woodcock’s confidante and muse, is a breakthrough role for Vicky Krieps, a Luxembourger actor who delivers an intricate performance ripe with occult sensuality.
“Phantom Thread” is a masterpiece of precision and restraint, but the medium of the film itself is decadence. The House of Woodcock, in which the majority of the movie takes place, is a luxury apartment complete with spiral stairs and decked out with marble. In a pivotal scene late in the film, a richly decadent omelet is served, but only a single bite is taken. Early on, Woodcock makes his constant awareness of outside perception clear, and its toll on the movie’s interactions is abundantly clear. Relationships with the upper-class are upheld only insofar as they benefit the Woodcock brand. Even Alma often acts as a mere accessory, a useful vehicle for receiving love without the complicated necessity of exposing his vulnerabilities and opening himself to loss.
As a couple, Alma and Woodcock want for nothing. She is given the lifestyle of the rich, the acquaintance of royalty and a near endless amount of exclusive gowns. In return, she gives him every piece of herself. Over the course of the film, Alma will eventually receive every piece of Woodcock as well, and the burden of inequality haunts the entire proceedings.
Spirits and curses manifest themselves in odd, secular ways in “Phantom Thread,” from superstitious messages hidden inside the cloth of dresses to the ghost of Woodcock’s mother standing, without fanfare, in his bedroom—elsewhere in the film she makes her presence known, not visually but via Freudian echos.
The curse of the wedding dress, that any woman who touches one except her own will never marry, affects his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), a clerically cruel woman who matches her brother’s insecurity with reproachful ferocity. When Woodcock tires of a woman, he has Cyril break it off for him.
The relationship between Alma and Woodcock is certainly cursed from the beginning. Alma is naive, yet impish, proving uniquely abrasive to the compulsive traditions of Woodcock. This dichotomy fuels how the wills of the two trade advantage across the tightrope plot—Woodcock, exhibiting a scalding masculinity, and Alma, a classically feminine coup. It is a partnership that becomes more convoluted as their naked psyches emerge— as the film ends, Woodcock’s distinct hunger is reframed and their symbiotic sadism is clearly portrayed. “Phantom Thread” ends on a washed, complicated note. A feeling of something like shock might register later, days after seeing this film—a delayed reaction to its subtle buildup of emotion and tension.
This is a film that shines a light into the deep recesses of the darkest elements of human relationships, then drops you without warning.
Whatever you do, view it carefully.
Contact Peter Schultz at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.