Phantom Thread

Studio: Focus Features
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Dec 29, 2017 Web Exclusive
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When a film pirouettes from the screen to kiss your cheek, you almost don’t notice until you’ve already surrendered to its persuasions. The still-evolving filmmaking genius of Paul Thomas Anderson is that such delicacy can also overwhelm, as it does in his latest masterwork, Phantom Thread. In the darkness of the theater where it ought to be seen, it feels like a private invitation to the sumptuous fabrics of a time and place and he is the most attentive of escorts. Anderson made a bold pivot away from his narrative and directorial lean on his first collaboration with Daniel Day-Lewis and composer Jonny Greenwood, There Will Be Blood, and here he does it again, this time to a world far removed from the brutish expansionism of that American perspective. Reunited with Day-Lewis and Greenwood for his new tale of romance and the inevitable incongruities that trail its sudden appearance, Anderson leads us by the hand to opulent London in the 1950’s, a realm uncharted for him. And yet he designs it with carefully chosen lenses and expressions as though familiar with all the revolving panels and hidden passageways. Day-Lewis plays a famed dressmaker but this is not a film about fashion as much as it is about what it conceals. In a role that remarkably demonstrates another level of immersion into character for Day-Lewis, revealing the most restrained idiosyncrasies, he plays Reynolds Woodcock, a man careful to remain in his place behind the curtains of the high society he decorates. He cultivates the presentation of the genteel but abstains their parades. Behind a hermetic window his expertise has afforded him, he dines fancily but not amongst the decadent crowd. His particular nature creates distinct boundaries.       

Over those boundaries stumbles Alma, quite actually in her introduction. From the moment her character, played by the naturally enchanting Vicky Krieps, enters the dining room of a seaside chalet en route to Reynold's country home - nervous and fully flush to take his breakfast order - her presence beguiles.  Never before has a Paul Thomas Anderson story begun with such poetry of filmic elements. The light allowed to flood brightly behind Reynolds, illuminating a pleasantly smiling profile - unmistakably Day-Lewis's - symbolizes the fresh tingle of Alma’s allure. So does the fluttering gaiety of Greenwood’s score, which carries the emotive undercurrent of what feels like every scene of the film, from the buoyancy of sprung possibility in this instance to the tensions of reality that ensue. Referencing Nelson Riddle and full string-section jazz arrangements as well as Glenn Gould’s Bach recordings, Greenwood captures the elegance of the period with understated nods to Gershwin grandeur, all with the eloquence of silent film composition.

From this first picturesque meeting blossoms a sensitive relationship and thus within the formal and demanding world of Reynolds balances another. With a sophistication of cinematic modality and language that in Anderson’s grasp feel wholly innovative, the compatibility of this convergence is tested. The heartbeat of the film pulses through the character interplay stemming from the gray area surrounding how Reynolds sees Alma, as a muse or something more. This is so effectively established when he measures her for a dress - a physical metaphor for delineation of the relationship to be, where the dimensions are up to him. Reynolds’ precious self-image is held up by undisturbed routine, work encumbered by detail and the confidence that comes from the prestigious adornment of his creations. Alma's invasions into this order are both about the space she disrupts physically and also the space that can’t contain her vitality. These are both threats to the balance of Reynolds' existence. In a ballet of sequences both wittily humorous and heartbreaking we see the resistance to reconcile his nature with hers - to accept her love and tolerate her endearing demonstrations of individuality. Alma, however, is determined to get through his guard, wielding a naturality she wishes to draw out from Reynolds, underneath his facades of refinement.

The body drawn around that core dynamic is what sets Anderson apart as a director, writer, and essentially a cinematographer on this film (though there was no official camera credit and it was shot collaboratively.) The vision of Phantom Thread is fashioned with an expressly European sensibility, which Anderson elevates and seizes with the instruments of his craft to assert authorship. Whereas you picked-up on the ode to an influence in past films, (see the tracking nightclub scene in Goodfellas transparently reproduced in Boogie Nights) whatever his references here are more mysterious, indicating a studied absorption of an aesthetic style rather than a borrowing of it. The cinema is ambrosial. Details of objects and gestures fill the frame, the things we take for granted being granted gorgeous animation. Steam from pots of tea carries their aromas through the screen. Intimate close-ups on texture and the seams that connect things, and looks that burn with the meaning that words fail. Alma's smitten smiles and countenance of dejection are filmed in ways that make it seem as though there’s no camera there at all.

Though Phantom Thread is unlike any other film of Paul Thomas Anderson's, something it shares is the tenuous fluctuation between satisfaction and unease. Charm trembles with the undercurrent of disturbance. Anderson has long used the physical to convey tension - which is why it is often so physically unsettling to see how his human juxtapositions unfold - but in Phantom Thread he plays more on our intuitions, held by the stares between people trying to hedge emotion with decorum. Troublesome aspects of nature are disguised, where they are worn like stains on character surfaces in his other films. As always, cameras hold frame on subjects long enough so that you soak in the angst. Anderson trusts the potency of wordless exchange, but his words wield their own power through economy. Dialogue is spiced by common replies loaded with irony and innuendo, relying on agile delivery, something we know is inherent in Day-Lewis and issues delightfully from his lady counterparts Krieps and Lesley Manville, who plays Reynolds sister with devastating reserve.

Of all the pleasures to behold in Phantom Thread the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis, apparently his last as an actor, is one to savor. He assumes the comportment of his character with breathtaking nuance and follow-through, reflecting his collaboration with Anderson in developing it from the early stages of writing. The foreboding intensity looming behind Reynolds' gallantry carries all the impact of the outward severity of his other Paul Thomas Anderson character, Daniel Plainview, just with the gentle hand of a tailor. It's a testament to the level of excellence inspired by Anderson's impeccable coordination that Day-Lewis's two greatest roles were delivered for him, in There Will Be Blood and now in Phantom Thread.

From its levitating entrance through to its heartwarming denouement, Phantom Thread is like the painting that you stop to admire, quite involuntarily because you are enraptured by it, though couldn’t explain why. You have no choice but to succumb to cinema on this level, as Reynolds ultimately does to Alma. The range of Paul Thomas Anderson continues to expand in more unexpected and wonderful ways. Labels like masterful and brilliant are tossed  around in appreciation of artistry but these can be handed to Paul Thomas Anderson on a silver platter with a glass of champagne.

Author rating: 10/10

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