***1/2 out of ****
(for strong language)
Released: December 25, 2017 limited; January 19, 2018 wide
Runtime: 130 minutes
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville
The eccentric obsessions of privileged white elites are getting really hard to take seriously, especially those by men. But once you get past the absurd petulance on display, Phantom Thread is one sumptuous throwback to Golden Age melodramas, more by way of Hitchcock than Sirk.
Paul Thomas Anderson, the American auteur behind towering modern classics like There Will Be Blood and The Master, loves Turner Classic Movies. That channel, he’s said, is on constantly at his home, a background companion that shapes him as an artist both directly and by osmosis. TCM’s influence on Anderson has never been so gloriously apparent as in Phantom Thread.
Set in early 1950s London, Phantom Thread transports us into a glamorous world. Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is an internationally renowned dress designer. At the center of British fashion, his clientele ranks amongst the world’s premier socialites. A confirmed bachelor, models come and go from his life as muses and lovers; the two roles are inextricable.
Reynolds’ only long-term relationship is with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), a woman who guides his business and contains his impulses. The aura of his dead mother also looms.
But then Reynolds meets a beautiful waitress and it turns his whole world upside down, mostly because he’s completely oblivious to the fact that it will.
Reynolds is used to being in control of his hermetically sealed circle and the people in it, but the demure Alma (newcomer Vicky Krieps, in a deviously commanding turn) doesn’t end up being as passive as she first appears.
Reynolds Woodcock owns what he loves, but in Alma he’s met both his soul mate and his match. That combustible combination leads to equal parts devotion and tension, igniting eerie acts of psychological kink.
Phantom Thread is a film set in high society made almost exclusively for high society. Outside onlookers may admire and gush over it but, to the average layperson, Woodcock’s childish and perverse inclinations might only provoke eye rolls. These wealthy people lead petty, inward lives, with no perspective to the broader, less fortunate world around them.
Their predilections are mesmerizing psychosomatic dysfunctions but only within a vacuum. In reality they’re wanton luxuries, and that undercuts the film’s desired impact.
Reynolds is a tempest in a thimble. Impatient and possessive, where every unmet wish is the greatest injustice, he’s unforgiving of any transgression no matter how minor or inconsequential. More than an idiosyncratic recluse, he’s demanding in the extreme, flagrantly exhibiting a callous inhumanity. For Alma to add a mere slab of butter to a heating skillet is an act of defiance.
That dynamic is intriguing…until it’s maddening. Being a volatile genius is one thing, and it makes sense that such a fragile egocentricity would extend from his work to his personal life, plus Day-Lewis dives in full method, but the insular bubble created by Reynolds’ own design (pun intended) makes him less complex, not more. It’s all vanity.
Yet while the whole exercise is never quite convincing, Phantom Thread remains a fascinating head trip on its own narrow terms. For cinephiles in particular, clueing in to inspirations from Hitchcock’s Rebecca gives this sophisticated soap opera another juicy layer.
Krieps and Manville put their own authoritative twists on the Mrs. de Winter / Mrs. Danvers archetypes, as does Anderson’s screenplay, but the two women here are more austere and coy, as is the film itself, yet they’re no less passionate or driven (and maybe even more calculating).
In Casablanca, Rick rightly observed that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday Ilsa would understand that, but people like Reynolds Woodcock never will. To them, their problems are Everest.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s character study of that kind of narcissistic intemperance doesn’t resonate as powerfully or profoundly as his best work, and he seems more intrigued by the story’s aesthetic possibilities as much as anything, but damned if it isn’t as elegant a work of cinema as you’ll ever see.