When you use words like “elegant”, “exquisite”, and “sumptuous” to describe something, there comes an unavoidable sense of pretension that clouds all else. When you use them to describe Phantom Thread, the new film from writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, it feels almost tacky. Here’s a film about two white people – a difficult man and a naïve woman – slowly falling in love; it might seem like the kind of costume-conservatism that keeps the beds of little-Englanders reassuringly wet. But it is all these portentous descriptors, while being defiantly stranger, more enchanting, and downright weirder than first impressions would suggest.
The film charts the relationship of acclaimed dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his new partner-aide Alma (Vicky Krieps); it moves through reams of dresses and fittings and romance of the couture world of 1950s London in a rhythm of mechanical precision. Things can’t remain so tightly-wound, however, as Woodcock’s suave-yet-enervated manner is counterbalanced by Alma’s apparent normality. They dance around one another; he’s fusty and obsessive, she’s bright and spontaneous– and yet, as the threads unravel, this relationship takes turns delightfully dark and morbidly unhealthy. To go into any more detail would be to ruin so much of the subtle twisting of it, but needless to say, it’s far from the staid costume-drama one might think.
More than anything, it’s a space in which you reside for two-or-so hours
There’s something unique in that mechanical precision. Thread has such exceptional formal control, every shot feeling purposeful and pointed, keyed into an exact mood and affect. An early moment exemplifies this. Upon Reynolds first laying eyes on Alma, the view switches to his perspective; it pans widely around the room as she nervously flits from place to place, avoiding-but-acknowledging his eye-contact. So much is conveyed in such a tiny action: the burgeoning connection between them; her initial unsteadiness; his controlling, passive gaze. It’s beautiful to look at, too. Every scene is stuffed with vibrant mise-en-scène in the dresses and stately surrounds, the colours shining with excitable life. More than anything, it’s a space in which you reside for two-or-so hours; you slowly soak in the detail of every meticulously-observed setting as they’re laid out before you.
It has a tone and a mood that is unlike so much else. The plot carries an air of unpredictability; characters don’t reveal themselves through exposition, but instead in casual statements, routine, and the vaguest of glances and inflections. And on those glances: the two monolithic performances by Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps are the centrepieces, embodying figures who swivel, by turns, from strong to sober and back again. Perhaps it would seem obvious that Day-Lewis might give an exceptional performance; what is interesting is the restraint with which it’s given. Woodcocks has many curious, perhaps compulsive, particularities in his person, but they’re all managed with a sense of understatement and humour that seems capable at any moment of morphing into childish rage. Krieps has the less immediately-showy role; Alma at first appears only a meek ingenue. But it’s a smarter film than that. Her complexion gently weathers a breakdown of her naiveté, somehow embodying so many different shades of simple passivity. The strength that becomes such a part of her character takes a while to surface- but surface, it does.
by the nature of its ethereal tone and frequent inscrutability, it’s not going to be for everyone
It’s easy to gush, particularly when the subject seems to have such certain grasp of all its various parts. Despite this, by the nature of its ethereal tone and frequent inscrutability, it’s not going to be for everyone. Characters don’t speak in order to be understood, and neither do they slot into standard roles of audience-identification; instances may play without dialogue, more conveyed in the spectacle of the subtext than the script itself. It’s not aggressively alienating, but certainly disconcerting in a way that sometimes feels like you’re left wondering quite where it’s going. It generally manages to resolve, however, even if the lingering questions of quite what it means will niggle away – unsatisfied – long after it’s done.
Sometimes a film simply deserves to be marvelled-at, commended for the astonishing craft and care in every detail of its form. Phantom Thread, naturally, is such a film. Yes, it retains some of the surface-level convention of the period-piece. Yes, it’s not a film that avoids lingering dissatisfaction in its enigma-like nature. But it’s a subtle experience, one that works to reveal deeper and deeper layers over its course. You won’t find what you expect from this film; what you will, however, is something thoughtful, mysterious, and assuredly confident in its skin.