Paul Thomas Anderson (director, cinematographer, and writer), Dylan Tichenor (editor)
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville, Vicky Krieps (cast)
Released December 11, 2017 (USA limited), January 5, 2018 (Canada) January 19, 2018 (USA wide release)
Daniel Day Lewis says that Phantom Thread is his final film. I can’t help but think this must be a relief for his wife and kids. Lewis’s acting process is an extreme form of method where he stays in character even when he’s off set, sometimes for months at a time, and, especially for period pieces, even learns relevant skills for each film. For Phantom Thread he studied sewing and design.
Lewis believes that this kind of minute attention to detail leads to the best possible performances, ones where he is so completely subsumed into the character that everything from posture to micro expressions are just so, exactly what the character would do. Whenever I hear Lewis expound on his all-encompassing performance prep, I think: “JFC, he must be a pain to live with,” and, “the first time he claimed that President Lincoln didn’t have a driver’s license, so no, he couldn’t pick up the kids from school, I would strike him dead from rage alone.”
I mention all of this because Lewis was cast as Phantom Thread‘s Reynolds Woodock for a reason beyond his consummate skill and perfectionism: he was cast, in part, for the resonance of an obnoxious perfectionist playing another obnoxious perfectionist, both of whom are reaching the end of their careers. Director, writer, and cinematographer Paul Thomas Anderson exploits this resonance to great effect. His camera captures the tiniest details of Lewis’s performance.
The film opens with Reynolds preparing for his day–lathering for his shave, pulling on socks, dressing–and then cuts to his sister Cyril, played with distant magnificence by Lesley Manville, opening their couture dress shop for the day. As Reynolds goes through his grooming routine, the seamstresses arrive, breakfast is served for him and Cyril, and it’s all of a piece–one big, fine-tuned routine that governs all of Reynolds’ life and the operation of his business.
It’s immediately clear that this routine is partly due to Reynolds’ over-bearing and often mean management style, but to an even greater extent, due to the anxieties that rule him. Reynolds is a superstitious, sad, and worried man, who aims to exert perfect control over himself and his surroundings. And his work as a fashion designer for the rich and richer only feeds into that consuming need. Lewis builds layers into Reynolds’ meanness: hesitations, suggestions of manic highs and lows, and moments of creative transcendence where he doesn’t see people, he sees through them. Reynolds doesn’t just make dresses, he makes his customers. Their bodies bend and transform according to his will. Their reputations lift with his work to adorn them. He tells his new seamstress and girlfriend Alma, played by Vicky Krieps, that whatever her insecurities, her body is great material for him to work with. “I will give you breasts if I want to,” he says, meaning through his designs.
Alma enters this delicately crafted world of neuroses and high fashion art providentially and ominously. Reynolds, during a country retreat from his latest romantic collapse and on the shore of a deep emotional low, catches the eye of fresh-faced waitress Alma and asks her to have dinner with him. But no, that doesn’t get across the precision of the thing–how it’s done is as important to Reynolds, as it being done at all. So he tests Alma, giving her an absurdly long order and asking to read her notes. He rips it off her pad and asks to keep it. “Will you remember this?” he asks her. “Of course,” she says. Alma seems young and impressionable enough to be just what Reynolds is looking for. She is meant to be just another in a long line of interchangeable girls. Pretty young things who bow to his whims, bend their forms to the place he’s made for them: one girl, of about this size, to live in this room, for about this time, never to make noise during breakfast, or challenge Reynolds’ opinions, ideas, and routine.
Just as we immediately understand Reynolds’ character, we know right away that Alma won’t fit into that box. She’s too big for it and too canny for his traps. Krieps gives Alma a kind of casually steel core, one that she hides from Reynolds when convenient, but which we can’t quite forget exists. Reynolds is ripe for disruption and Alma is the one to do it. No matter how childish or abusive he becomes, she rallies, and not just to roll over and exhibit quiet strength. Unlike everyone else in Reynolds’ life, save Cyril, Alma pushes back. In another film this could be a meet cute, but Lewis, Krieps, and Anderson give the scene a note of foreboding. Alma comes to love Reynolds and fiercely respects his talent, but she also finds him silly, his routine a bit of a joke. In a romantic comedy, she would bring life and laughter into his home and business, but Phantom Thread is not a romcom, and Reynolds thinks she brings passion, yes–annoyingly for him–but a regrettable scent of “quiet death.”
What Phantom Thread is, in the end, is a strange combination of romantic thriller and masterful character study of creatives, obsessives, and the worlds they build. Paul Thomas Anderson and costume designer Mark Bridges (and frankly the whole crew) give you enough hints of the film’s eventual resolution, literally stitched into the fabric of the film and the fabric adorning its stars’ bodies, that even the most mundane scenes are rich with tension and even horror. But, they don’t give away the game early on. Phantom Thread is a long game of anticipation and eventually satisfaction.