Phantom Thread.

Phantom Thread is a meticulous film, by turns grim and grinning, featuring a tour de force performance from Daniel Day-Lewis (his final role, if you believe that sort of thing) where he’s matched line for line by the two actresses playing against him. It’s also kind of bonkers, as the three characters move in unconventional ways, forging subtle alliances with each other only to surprise the viewer with reactions that shred the clichéd plot devices we’ve all come to expect, even from ‘smart’ films.

Day-Lewis plays the hilariously-named fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock, who makes the highest of high-end dresses for the elites of London in the 1950s, operating the House of Woodcock with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), to whom he refers as “Old So-and-So.” When the film opens, we see the two of them at breakfast with a third woman, who is clearly in love with Reynolds but who is exasperated with him ignoring her in favor of his art. While en route to a house in the country, he stops for breakfast and is taken with the waitress who serves him, Alma (Vicky Krieps), inviting her to dinner and quickly moving to install her in his house as his muse. When he tries to run roughshod over her as he apparently has with previous women in her station, however, Alma gives as good as she gets, creating a seesawing battle of wills between the two of them, Cyril, and the ever-present spectre of Reynolds’ late, beloved mother. Alma reaches the point where, presumably, her predecessors have left the house or been steered out by Cyril, but instead takes the initiative in drastic fashion, making Reynolds depend on her while shifting both the balance of power and the audience’s perception of her as the ingenue under the thumb of the great master.

There is enough going on beneath the surface of this film to fill a joint thesis for a psychology and English literature degree. Reynolds sews ‘secrets’ into the linings of his dresses, and reveals to Alma early in the film that he keeps a lock of his mother’s hair sewn into his jacket – over his “breast.” He’s a manipulative bully to Alma, and speaks to everyone in tightly clipped tones that imply some deep repression. His fastidious nature may not be affect, but where everyone around him treats his idiosyncrasies as the mercurial nature of the great artist, Alma pierces his armor and even tells Cyril that he’s “too fussy,” which understates the matter just a bit. I can’t imagine that Woodcock’s surname was some accidental reference, nor do I think the choice of Alma (which means “soul” in three Romance languages, deriving from the Latin word almus, meaning “kind” or “nourishing”) was inadvertent. Cyril bears a man’s name that means “lord,” and she certainly rules the House of Woodcock and her brother’s life while brooking no dissent. And do we need to go into detail about the symbolism of the asparagus in one of the movie’s most pivotal scenes?

Some details in Phantom Thread don’t quite ring true on their own, and Anderson relies on the immersive nature of the world he’s created to help the viewer skate past some of those moments. Reynolds’ order at the restaurant where Alma works is hilariously long and detailed, especially since we’ve just seen him getting dressed and thus seen how slight he is, almost looking gaunt. But Anderson manages to make some of these less than credible details work because of the compelling, three-dimensional characters he’s created at the heart of the film. Would Alma truly take that diabolical step to bind Reynolds to her? Would he then make the choice he does at the end of the film when he realizes what’s happening? Is this actually love between the two of them, or some sort of mad obsession – not with each other, at least not in the traditional romantic-sexual sense, but with their pursuit of a shared ideal of life and work and a union where all boundaries between the two of them are utterly erased? (If you’ve already seen the film, check out The Cut’s excellent Q&A with a psychotherapist about the Reynolds-Alma relationship.)

Day-Lewis is superb, as he always is, infusing this perplexing, often childish character with an undeniable charisma that helps explain the way women fawn over him throughout the film. There’s no surprise here, given his body of work to date, but Manville (nominated for Best Supporting Actress) and Krieps both deliver stellar performances that allow their characters to stand against him. Either was worthy of a nomination, but Manville does a bit more with less dialogue than Krieps gets, and by the end of the film, Cyril remains the most impenetrable character. Manville likely has zero chance of a win – her competition includes Laurie Metcalf for Lady Bird and Allison Janney for I, Tonya – but I wouldn’t count Day-Lewis out completely, given that some voters may hold favorite Gary Oldman’s anti-#MeToo comments against him. Similarly, Anderson seems like an underdog in the Best Director category, but he’d be more than deserving, and only Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk) seems to have had more influence as a director on his film than Anderson did here.

As for Best Picture … I’d have a very hard time choosing among the nine nominees. The best movie I saw from 2017 remains The Florida Project, which did not receive a nomination, losing out to the blank space the Academy always leaves in the tenth slot. I’d put Phantom Thread in the top three of the nominees, along with Dunkirk and The Shape of Water, just ahead of Call Me By Your Name. Just don’t hold me to that opinion yet.

Comments

  1. Hey Keith, out of curiosity, did you see Phantom Thread in 35 mm or 70? I’ve seen the 35, and I’ve heard that the 70 is a markedly different experience. Curious to hear which you saw.

    • I have no idea, so I assume 35?

    • I realize that they also distributed it in 35, so it may have been that. I had seen it in 35, and assumed that was the basic.

      So yeah, you probably saw it in digital in the 35 ratio. Cool, thanks.

    • That first 35 should read “digital.” Long week.

  2. At least this film finally made me learn what Welsh rarebit is and is not.

    This film vexed me more than it should have. I’m not entirely sure if I enjoyed it, which means I’ll have to rewatch it. Day-Lewis was phenomenal as always.

    My top 5 for the year ended up being Dunkirk, Three Billboards, Florida Project, Shape of Water and Coco, in that order. Which means I’m in for sight disappointment come Oscar night.

  3. I think the breakfast order was Woodcock testing Alma’s attention, as he followed the order by taking the ticket as a “souvenir” of their encounter before she walked away. It was, to borrow a phrase too vulgar for the house of Woodcock, quite the baller move.

  4. If you’re ever in the mood to see the f—ed up post-apocalyptic version of Zootopia give “Birdboy” a try.

  5. I could not agree more about The Florida Project. As the father of two young girls, the concept of lost innocence is heartbreaking to me. Great film.

  6. I just read your review of Florida Project, and loved the phrase “the wonder of childhood isn’t tied to wealth or possessions.”
    Beautiful writing Keith.

Speak Your Mind

*