Phantom Thread tells the story of a 60-year-old man who has behaved like an incorrigible child his entire adult life because his genius has allowed him to get away with it. His name is Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), his business is fashion design and he lives in 1950s upper-crust London but this elemental romantic drama about a stubborn man meeting his match could be taking place anytime, anywhere. An early breakfast-table scene suggests that Woodcock has long had a revolving door of lovers, each of whom he can’t tell apart from the last. His most important relationship is with his sister, Cyril (Leslie Manville), who carefully maintains the balance of his well-manicured existence. Enter Alma (Vicky Krieps), the country waitress whose “ideal figure” and beguiling manner strike his fancy like so many women before her. But Alma is different: she actually worms her way into his heart. A scene where she fiercely demands a drunken patron remove one of Woodcock’s dresses causes him to see her in a new light — not unlike the moment where Lisa Fremont enters Lars Thorwald’s apartment in Rear Window. But Alma, even shrewder and more clever than she first appears, soon has to rely on more devious means in order to make their relationship perpetuate, turning Woodcock painfully inside out in the process.
My friend Scott Pfeiffer has written that writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson posits one of Alma’s decisive actions (you’ll know the one when you see it) “as a metaphor for the skill of figuring out how to live.” I will go further and suggest that the film as a whole is a manual for marriage: how do you let someone into your world without upsetting your routine? How do they let you into theirs? This movie absolutely nails what it’s like to have to put up with the petty annoyance of listening to someone eat too loud. I’ve heard the ending described as “twisted” and “unsettling” but I must note that Phantom Thread, which appears to be Anderson’s most autobiographical work, was made by a man who has been in a successful monogamous relationship for 17 years. As a happily married man of 10-plus years myself, it’s hard for me to see the conclusion as anything other than an optimistic statement about how two people learn to compromise and make their relationship work, however unconventionally. As such, it joins the ranks of the great films about marriage: Rossellini’s Journey to Italy, Godard’s Contempt, Elaine May’s A New Leaf and Kiarostami’s Certified Copy. Although I prefer the looser and wilder Inherent Vice, there can be no doubt that Phantom Thread is Anderson’s most elegantly structured and perfectly realized work. Also, it’s fucking hilarious.
January 22nd, 2018 at 12:15 am
Great review 🙂 I have just seen it recently and I loved it. In that last paragraph, I love how you compare Phantom Thread to all those various classic films that are openly or subtly linked to each other. I just put up on my website, a list of my favorite Paul Thomas Anderson films and it might be similar to yours. Not to spoil anything, but while his earlier works were very good, it was not until 2007’s There Will Be Blood that he really matured as a filmmaker. Anyway, keep up the great work as always 🙂
January 23rd, 2018 at 8:30 am
Thanks for commenting, John. Totally agree that PTA made a quantum leap with THERE WILL BE BLOOD. BTW, I hope you will be able to check out my new film, MERCURY IN RETROGRADE, when it plays at the Siskel Center in a few weeks: http://www.siskelfilmcenter.org/mercury
February 11th, 2018 at 10:25 pm
Spot on. I loved the film. And it is hilarious, beginning with his ridiculous ordering of breakfast in the beginning.
June 30th, 2018 at 8:55 am
[…] PTA’s most perfect (though not greatest) film. I loved it as much as everyone and reviewed it for this very blog when it belatedly opened in Chicago in January. Capsule here. […]
December 31st, 2018 at 2:50 pm
[…] 4. Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA/UK) Anderson’s cinematic feast is equivalent to a breakfast of Welsh rabbit with a poached egg, bacon, scones, butter, cream, jam, a pot of Lapsang souchong tea, and some sausages. Capsule here. […]