2 Hrs., 10 Mins.
n “Flower,” the most infamous track off Liz Phair’s seminal LP Exile in Guyville (1993), the singer-songwriter, with rather deadpan affectation, yearns for the touch of a stranger. “Every time I see your face,” she coos. “I get all wet between my legs. Every time you pass me by, I heave a sigh of pain.”
Phair’s never spoken with this man, and she probably never will. But what shocks her – and us – is how quickly she’d give herself over to him if she
had the opportunity. What’s going on in her mind and body is more than physical attraction; it’s something fantastical, inexplicable. Maybe it’s even animal. She’s infatuated, yet isn’t quite so sure she’d be able to explain why if asked.
In writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, Phantom Thread (2017), a comparable sort of rabid obsession is depicted. Only it isn’t one-sided, foremostly sexual, or confined to an idiosyncratic two-minute aural space. Experienced by a couturier and his muse, the spotlighted relationship is parasitic, sadomasochistic. It is more defined by distrust, betrayal, and jealousy than it is affection or tangible adoration. We conclude that these people shouldn’t be with each other. But we’re also certain they couldn’t live without the other; their unhealthy mutual obsession drives them.
Narratively, Phantom Thread is one of Anderson’s most straightforward, albeit circuitous, films. It certainly makes for a departure from his last movie, Inherent Vice (2015). That movie, which I loved, was a shaggy-haired, pot-stinking exercise in ticklish detective psychedelia that briefly established Anderson as Robert Altman’s most obvious descendant.
Phantom Thread is a 180. It, so finely coiffed and aesthetically pristine, is reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon (1993) or Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001), sensorially invigorating movies about romantic obsession gone wrong. It is stylistically seamless. Flawlessly acted. Visually, it’s the most breathtaking movie Anderson has ever made. (It also acts as his cinematography debut.)
But it is so oblique in its every move – especially in terms of its emotional output – that Phantom Thread often alienates its audience. Presumably we’re here to watch a movie about almost somatically passionate obsession. But because the film so vociferously highlights what these characters cannot stand about one another, we’re pressed to tell exactly why this obsession has begun in the first place. It’s there, all right. But little evidence as to why it so loudly hovers in the air is offered.
The feature is set in 1950s London, where the successful fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) has made a name for himself. We first meet him at the height of his career; his quarters are almost Factory-esque in the way they act as a cult-like sanctuary for wealthy customers and smaller scale designers. Always tugging on his arm is his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), whom we’d say recalls Rebecca’s (1940) Mrs. Danvers if malevolence became her.
Watching Woodcock simply exist is fascinating. Sometime during the middle of the film, a character remarks that much of what he does resembles a game. The observation manages to be factual. All his food must be made neatly and particularly; mess up and you’ll receive a tantrum. You must stay out of his way when he’s working; best not mess with this mad genius when he’s in a zone. Don’t surprise him. Don’t question him. If he wants to gaze at you, let him. (Even watching him get ready in the morning is something to gawk at: he shaves so precisely, for instance, he’ll even pluck stray sideburn hairs when need be.)
Then enters Alma (Vicky Krieps), a rosy-cheeked waitress Woodcock meets while visiting a restaurant in the countryside. Their meet-cute is something to behold: rather than being characterized by an electric exchange of dialogue, it mostly consists of Woodcock staring intensely at Alma from afar and smiling as she fumbles. He’s taken aback by her girlishness, her earthiness. Feelings of attraction are mutual. They go out for dinner later that night.
Before Alma knows it, she has become Woodcock’s muse, modeling his fashions for customers and taking on a pivotal role in the behind-the-scenes process. It’s clear that she loves him. But whether Woodcock loves her back or sees her as a handy decoration isn’t clear to her. And this progressively toys with her. Early moments in the movie limit their affection to a couple fiery kisses here and there; we’re not even sure if they’ve slept together. Their interactions are mostly confined to mind games edged out in sexual tension.
Throughout Phantom Thread do we see their vaguely emotionally sadistic relationship increase in its toxicity, coming to a head when Alma tries to capture Woodcock’s attention through deadly means.
Anderson takes ample time revealing the insecurities and neuroses of these characters. The first half of the film is devoted to Alma’s unceasingly trying to break open the emotional egg that is Woodcock, probing why she’s become so enraptured with this difficult diva of a man. The second half is dedicated to Woodcock’s need for Alma, deciding eventually that his dependence on her might just stem from his subconsciously needing a fixture in his life that isn’t totally immaculate and readily controlled by him.
Yet, these characters feel like cursive question marks scribbled with a Diabolo de Cartier: we understand their purposes and are infatuated with their sophistication, but find it difficult to get to the bottom of their essence when asked to succinctly do so.
Anderson subtextually tells us that Woodcock is perhaps so neurotic and manipulative because of the death of his mother, turning into a well-dressed control freak because he’s so afraid of anything slipping his grasp. Alma is so dominated by Woodcock because she’s never felt this same sense of importance before. Although we’re not provided with much information pertaining to her upbringing, we’d led to believe that it was characterized by humility and maybe even invisibility; no one’s ever really thought of her as special. So Woodcock’s sporadically elevating her to the level of semi-celebrity is intoxicating, as is the idea that he might possibly love her. She’s so consistently disappointed, but those fleeting moments in which she’s put on a pedestal are so thrilling that she can’t help herself from trying to make them happen once again herself.
I think what makes the film so difficult to latch onto both has to do with the fact that we don’t know who these people are outside of this obsession – and the fact that we see so little actual passion that would convince us that there are other motivating reasons as to why they’re so drawn to one another. Alma is not often defined as much more than an abused puppy who returns time and time again to her owner, disrupting her own passivity once in a while with a catty verbal comeback or a stare-off with her object of affection. Woodcock so often feels like the impossible-to-crack mad genius who is, more often than not, merely infuriating. The subtle claims that so much of his abusive behavior stems from the death of his mother is not convincingly explored; by the end of the film is he still an enigma, which I’m certain was not Anderson’s intention.
Much of my aforementioned psychoanalysis doesn’t come from Anderson’s writing: it’s all based in assumption, and the film would benefit from sometimes more directly addressing why these characters act and live the way they do.
Surprisingly, the most cogent character in Phantom Thread is Cyril, who is secondary but nonetheless plausible and understandable. Played wonderfully by Manville, who has deservedly earned an Oscar nomination for her performance, we know exactly who this woman is: an elegant spinster whose dependency on her brother’s life and legacy has transformed her into a diligent servant who’s inherited her sibling’s dependency on mind games to assert power. But there’s a deep-seated vulnerability that peppers every move she makes. It’s obvious that her coldness is her way of informing the world that her not adhering to societal expectations regarding marriage and motherhood doesn’t bother her. But it likely does. Manville’s eyes tell us that.
That’s how the film often works: because Anderson is so indirect about almost everything, we turn to the performances to find meaning. Fortunately, this leading trio is telling.
I last saw Day-Lewis in 1985’s My Beautiful Laundrette, a kitchen-sink comedy-drama and one of his first films. In that movie, he was ferocious and uninhibited. He’s similarly fervid in Phantom Thread. One of the things I’ve always admired about the actor is how comfortably he embodies the characters he plays. So many actors can slip in and out of a role with ease, but Day-Lewis is disinterested in cursory characterizations. For three decades, he’s routinely invested copious time and energy to comprehensively become whichever man he’s playing.
In a movie as emotionally evasive as Phantom Thread, this sort of dedication is necessary: without Day-Lewis, Woodcock might seem one-dimensional. While it’s true that by the time the movie’s closing credits make their way on to the screen we still don’t feel as though we’ve quite figured out this mercurial couturier, Day-Lewis so perfervidly brings him to life that we’re almost as invested in trying to understand him as the ever-frustrated Alma. It’s one of the actor’s most captivating, cryptic performances. The increasing claims that Woodcock will be the last character he ever plays is hopefully just based in temporary exhaustion – to lose an actor like Day-Lewis would leave one feeling empty.
But this alleged swan song also comes with the birth of a new star, and that’s exciting, too. In Phantom Thread, Krieps is a revelation. Though the 34-year-old Luxembourgish actress has been active since 2008, this marks her first leading part in an American film. Almost immediately, she is defined as a force to be reckoned with.
Here, she recalls earthy screen legends like Ingrid Bergman and Bette Davis, unconventionally beautiful and so easily capable of dominating a scene. Her Alma is an entity of contradiction: independent but easily manipulated; thoughtful but prone to bursts of recklessness; obedient but defiant. Krieps’ face and body are screens onto which we can project our cinematic fantasies; we are, like in the case of Day-Lewis, compelled to try to unravel her – she is an incandescent performative tidal wave.
All this artistic command makes Phantom Thread all the more frustrating. Anderson’s direction is sumptuous and luxuriant. The performances are similarly extraordinary in their prowess. We likely won’t be forgetting everything presented any time soon. Yet there’s an indirectness that enforces the film be more admirable than forthrightly impactful. Consider it the cinematic equivalent of an Edward Hopper painting: gorgeous and enrapturing, but perhaps too calculated to be anything more than something interesting to stare at for a long period. But given how it hasn’t left my mind in the days since I first watched it, this conclusion is subject to change. B+
February 5, 2018
This review also appeared on Verge Campus.