The Phantom Thread (2017)
Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson; Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville
[4 out of 4 stars]
There are few films that, upon finishing, are so satisfying that I feel as if I have just consumed a delicious meal; Paul Thomas Anderson, director of There Will Be Blood (2007), The Master (2007), and Inherent Vice (2014), has created just such a culinary masterpiece in his latest film, The Phantom Thread (2017). The film, a period piece that mixes drama with romance, focuses on renowned fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and is sensorily extremely fulfilling. Every detail, both visually and aurally, has been carefully attended to, and the viewer gets the sense that, like the gorgeous gowns that are showcased in the film, every thread in this work is exactly in place.
The Phantom Thread opens in 1950s London as The House of Woodcock, a distinguished dressmaker for celebrities and royalty, is opening for the day. Clean white shutters are crisply opened, high-heeled shoes click across wooden floors as the seamstresses file up the stairs, and women bid good morning to Reynolds. He owns The House of Woodcock and is very particular about every aspect of his life; when one character butters her toast too noisily, he states, “It is entirely too much movement for breakfast” and storms out of the room. He is not an easy man to get along with: selfish, self-absorbed, and difficult, he demands absurdly high standards from everyone around him and refuses to give the women in his life the appreciation they deserve. His sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) is the only constant in his life, nearly as crucial a pillar in The House of Woodcock as he is. She is also the one who asks the young women who serve as Reynolds’ muses to leave. A confirmed bachelor, Reynolds is inspired by various young women who live with him and model his dresses until Cyril notices that they have begun to irritate him and offers them a Woodcock dress as compensation. But the pattern is broken when he meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), a resolute waitress who is much less disposed to bend to Reynolds’ ironclad will. When Cyril attempts, repeatedly, to explain to Alma how crucial it is for him to have everything just so, Alma brushes it off, saying “I think he is too fussy.” Since Alma has given Reynolds, as she once puts it, “every piece of me,” she believes that she deserves to be treated better and takes it upon herself to break him and make him easier to live with. Even though Alma and Reynolds love each other, what ensues is a metaphorical game of chess between the two, moves and countermoves as each tries to quietly assert their power over the other and Alma tries to make a place for herself in Reynolds’ suffocatingly exact world.
Much of the film takes place within Reynolds’s house, a choice that, as time goes on, only compounds the sense of oppression and immobility that the viewer feels. Interestingly, Anderson worked without a cinematographer on this film since his usual Directory of Photography (DP), Robert Elswit — with whom he worked on There Will Be Blood (2007) and Inherent Vice (2014) — was unavailable, so Anderson made many of the decisions himself. The shots Anderson chooses, like the house, often appear at first glance to be clean and luxurious: closeups of decadent fabrics, delicately painted teacups, or sumptuously-laden breakfast tables, or wider shots of Reynolds’ dresses being positioned on mannequins. However, the cinematography is not actually as pristine as it first seems. Many of the scenes, especially those in the house, are infused with a sort of grainy texture, which Anderson achieved by pumping smoke into the room in which filming was occurring. Choices like this create an air of unease and imperfection in a seemingly immaculate world.
The film’s use of sound conveys a similar combination of precision and unease. The scenes are often very quiet so that the sounds that cut crisply through the air are further emphasized: the tiny snip of scissors slicing richly-colored fabric, the blunt scrape of a chair being suddenly pushed back from a table, the dull scratch of pencil on paper as Cyril writes down Alma’s measurements. Like the cool, unwavering precision with which Cyril looks at Alma, who stands nearly naked as she is measured, the use of sound is often direct and precise. It draws viewers deeper into world that Anderson has created and into the intimate space between Alma and Reynolds. The film’s sound designer, Christopher Scarabosio, often uses sounds for comedic effect, especially given Reynolds’s utter lack of patience when it comes to noise at meals; I’ve never known the sound of someone buttering toast to be funny, but hearing Alma do so at an otherwise silent table got a laugh from the entire theatre. Alma also uses sound to her advantage, as a way to push Reynolds’s buttons. Slowly pouring him a glass of water so that it makes as much noise as possible is not only amusing for the audience, but also a move by Alma to get back at Reynolds, knowing how exasperating it is for him. The sounds that cut through the quiet are often so grating that, by the conclusion, we almost find ourselves sympathizing with Reynolds; everything at breakfast is so carefully manicured that the harsh scrape of knife on toast seems woefully out of place.
This breakfast table, and many other meals throughout the film, play a surprising role in The Phantom Thread. As Cyril explains to Alma after one confrontation, “If breakfast is wrong, it’s very difficult for him to recover.” Food is just one of the many aspects of Reynolds’s life that must be perfect, but it is the one that Anderson chooses to focus on. It is no coincidence that Alma first meets Reynolds when she takes his order as a waitress in a restaurant. He elucidates each word with complete precision, and his sumptuously long list of dishes only becomes more entertaining as it continues: “Welsh rarebit with a poached egg- not too runny. Bacon. Scones. Butter. Cream. Jam, not strawberry. And some sausages.” When he has finished, he asks if she will remember the order. “Yes,” she replies. He reaches for her pad of paper, tears off his sheet, folds it into his pocket: “I’m keeping this.” But Alma shows she can hold her own against his test when she gets the order perfect, even down to the jam. Many of the couple’s arguments and show-offs occur over meals, particularly when Alma insists on preparing asparagus in an enormous pool of butter even though Reynolds will only eat it with a hint of oil. While candlelit dinners are often used as scenes of romance in other films, here, that love is merged with something more sinister and antagonistic as Reynolds and Alma constantly struggle to get the upper hand. The intimacy with which food is shown here — closeups of butter sizzling in a pan, asparagus steaming on a plate, fluffy mushrooms carefully being chopped — serves to focus our attention on the characters’ appetites, both literal and figurative, and the ways in which they use consumption as a method for control.
It is impossible to discuss a film in which Day-Lewis plays a leading role without being astounded by his skill. Yet I’d like to focus on Krieps’ and Manville’s performances if only because Day-Lewis, predictably, lives up to every expectation and is as arresting in The Phantom Thread as he has been in his other roles, and these women match him in their command of both their own characters and the scenes in which they appear. Manville’s portrayal of Cyril has been compared to Rebecca’s (1940) Mrs. Danvers, and while I ended up finding her more sympathetic than Mrs. Danvers, Cyril’s glacial demeanor and seeming utter lack of emotion does bring to mind Mrs. Danvers. What is remarkable about Manville is how much she is able to evoke with so little movement. Throughout nearly the entire film, she looks exactly the same: hair pulled tightly back, lipstick impeccably applied, facial expression cold. But somehow, in the glint of her eyes or the twitch of her mouth, she is able to convey so much about what Cyril is feeling, whether it be impatience or curiosity or anger. She speaks little, but when she does, those short lines combined with the full beam of her gaze are enough to make the viewer shrink back in her chair. However, Alma is the one who truly gives Reynolds a run for his money. From their first scene together, he is trying to assert his power, and she remains one step ahead. When they first visit his home and sit across from each other in front of a fire, he gazes at her; she looks right back and says, with a smile, “If you want to have a staring contest with me, you will lose.” Krieps’s gift is the strength she is able to convey in her voice. At many points, she is blushing or flustered, yet her voice remains firm. Even behind red cheeks and a small smile, there is something hard and determined.
Despite how carefully tailored The Phantom Thread is in every aspect, the effect is not forced or overbearing; rather, it seems just for a story as luxurious as this one is. But it is never predictable or boring. The film’s title comes from Reynolds’s habit of sewing secret words or notes into the linings of the garments that he creates; like Reynolds’s dresses, The Phantom Thread has a few surprises in store. Anderson’s choice of narrative is totally unique, and the result is a masterpiece about love, beauty, care, and power.