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Phantom Thread

Updated: Apr 25, 2020

Released 2018. Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

FIRST, THE BAD NEWS. THIS IS DANIEL DAY-LEWIS' FINAL MOVIE. One of the most talented and consummate actors of his generation is retiring. According to IMDb, he has 92 nominations and has won 146 awards, including 3 Oscars. Knowing that there’ll never be another new performance from Day-Lewis imparts a sense of bitter-sweetness to see him in Phantom Thread.

In his farewell performance, Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, renowned dressmaker to royalties and the wealthy in London in the 1950s. This is a serious, fastidious, meticulous man whose creativity and ordered life tolerates not the slightest disruption. The perfectionist character certainly mirrors the discipline of a staunch Method actor like Day-Lewis.

Reynolds meets Alma by chance, but from the first moment he lays eyes on Alma (Vicky Krieps), Reynolds knows he’s found his muse. This plain-looking waitress in uniform, unremarkable in any way, also instantly captures his heart. The tenderness in Reynolds’ voice as he orders a complicated breakfast could’ve put Alma on a cloud.

Later that night after their first date, Reynolds brings Alma back to his work room. Reynolds immediately gets into his rhythm, drawing and cutting, physical intimacy doesn’t even cross his mind as a bemused and bewildered Alma undresses for Reynolds to take her measurements. Rather abruptly, the romantic mood dissipates with the arrival of Cyril (Lesley Manville), Reynolds’ sister and business partner. Cyril is chilly, condescending, efficient and intuitive like Reynolds’ own right hand. Suddenly, Alma feels naked.

So begins a bizarre triangle that makes for a strange, twisted and unequal relationship. The creative genius is supported by two women; one understands him better then himself and knows how to control him, while the newcomer who promises romance and happiness understands she’ll have to settle for less than she deserves.

Phantom Thread is an emotionally lush period piece though it might require some patience to appreciate the character interactions in the absence of much plot. The feelings between Reynolds and Alma flow through a spectrum from tender to prickly. The couple, irresistibly drawn to each other, live in a house of jealousy, frustration and possessiveness. Tension is a constant.

Reynolds’ need for a micro-structured life goes against the grains to Alma’s natural spontaneity. Alma wants to make Reynolds happy but the man she loves is almost impossible to please. Paul Thomas Anderson delves into his story of a seemingly incompatible couple with the perceptiveness of a marriage counsellor. We see enough to know what kind of people they are, and why they behave the way they do, but Anderson doesn’t judge, even as he draws us closer to show us how they feel and think about each other when no one is looking.

This is also perhaps Anderson’s most beautiful movie. A warped romance dressed in silk and satin, visually sensuous and accompanied by a wistful score by Jonny Greenwood from the band Radiohead. Chief of all the performances are first rate. Alma and Cyril are strong women who know exactly what they want and what to do, with very different personalities. Alma is the outwardly subservient and submissive type. Cyril exerts her authority in a cold and decisive manner that silences even Reynolds. Krieps and Manville bring out the superficial contrast in their characters in a series of low-key scenes better described as battle of the wills.

Daniel Day-Lewis doesn’t play easy characters and Reynolds is a skilled designer who has neglected his own emotional intelligence. His passion is to make women beautiful, but he doesn’t have a clue how to behave in a relationship, or perhaps he doesn’t wish to change anything about himself, even if it hurts the woman he loves. Reynolds can be charming and disdainful in the same evening, but Day-Lewis is too careful to portray him as a jerk. Amidst this rigid regimen of Reynolds’ own rules and routine, Day-Lewis shows a man fighting against a desire to accommodate an intrusion of a woman’s affection. An extreme man in an intense relationship he inflicts upon himself.

Phantom Thread is a twisted romance of power and control. Near the end, Alma and Reynolds stare so intently at each other in silence over a plate of omelette it’s impossible to tell if bitterness has overwhelmed passion. An oddly erotic moment that arises out of a long drawn-out scene some might describe as a murder attempt.

Click image above to view trailer. New window will open.


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