Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread is exquisite. That’s neither a compliment nor a criticism, but just a description. It follows the story of a 1950’s London fashion designer described early on in the film as “too fussy.” That’s one way of describing him. So is fastidious, high-strung, attentive to detail, elegant, infinitely patient and impatient, and the kind of successful professional that has re-created the world around him to maximize focus and minimize distractions. His life is narrow, as is his emotional palette.

But the plot may mean little to many film folks. After all, this is the second collaboration between director Paul Thomas Anderson and actor Daniel Day-Lewis, (There Will be Blood ) as well as the fourth collaboration between Anderson and composer Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead (There Will be Blood, The Master, Inherent Vice). Also, horror of horrors, if Day-Lewis sticks to his dreaded promise, this is his last film as an actor. It’s also the coming-out party for Luxembourg actress Vicky Krieps, who manages to go to-to-toe with the greatest English actor in the world and hold her own, mostly by refusing to go toe-to-toe with him as a character.

The beginning of the plot is simple. Tightly wound, precise fashion designer meets awkward foreign waitress and asks her out. Some typical and many atypical actions ensue. Then the ensuing actions get distorted in unpredictable ways that will likely keep audiences buzzing. It’s not horror-movie stuff, but suggests that love and connection can be, shall we say, unhealthy at times.

The look of the film is impeccable. Anderson, giving full credit to his collaborators around the camera, was his own director of photography, so that there is no line between idea and visual conception. It’s as specific and defined as its lead character.

What fascinated me were the use of music, sound, and the rhythms of the film. Doing a complete 180 from his work on There Will be Blood, Greenwood creates a more traditional sounding, luxurious soundtrack that is at times subversive in its exaggeration of a classically beautiful soundtrack (a subject worthy of much greater attention than I will give here).

Sound is a major component of the film. Sounds that “offend” the main character—the buttering of toast, the sound of teeth against a spoon– are highlighted in much the same way that Janet Leigh’s moves are in the shower before her murder in Psycho—crisp, clear, and getting the viewer attuned to sound. It’s a key component of storytelling, and makes the film worth listening to as much as looking at.

The rhythms of the film are the antithesis of the modern American film. Individual scenes are played out rather slowly, or at least with a deliberate pace, and go on longer than most. But there are no wasted seconds, as the cuts bring us into the middle of the action suggested by the previous scene. Action slow; cuts deceptively quick.

But the focus right now is on the acting. Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock (a name with a great story behind it) is first cousin to J. Alfred Prufrock, measuring out his life with coffee spoons. He’s created a world so delicate that a deviation from the norm during breakfast can set his day off in the wrong direction. It’s a performance that is as far from his work in Gangs of New York and There Will Be Blood as possible. It takes an actor of great intelligence, focus, and precision to pull this off. And of course he does. The character is irritating; the performance is mesmerizing.

As good, if not also quite as tightly wound, is Lesley Manville as Woodcock’s sister Cyril, his administrator, protector, and business partner. She carries echoes of Judith Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, especially in her intelligence and strong presence, but without the growing sense of unhinged danger. She’s a crucial character on which much of the film depends, and Manville’s tight and concentrated performance is every bit the equal of the other supporting actresses that are receiving such attention this year (e.g., Allison Janney, Laurie Metcalf).

Vicky Krieps is something of a mystery, or her character is, or both. Her Alma is not the typical rube that either must be socialized or who helps bring the repressed male lead out of his shell (think Pretty Woman). We alternately appreciate and side with her, find her annoying, or find her unable to be understood. That works for the narrative twist in the film, but engaging with her character (unlike with Day-Lewis’ and Manville’s) is a challenge that the film never quite overcomes. It’s hard to tell from this one film what kind of future Krieps may have. But what a start in mainstream American/English films!

Lastly, what the film seems to suggest about love and dependence borders on the dysfunctional. More can’t be said without spoilers. But the directions the film finally takes are uncomfortable, occasionally unpredictable, and fascinating.

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About Mark DuPré

Full-time (associate) pastor at a Christian church. Part-time film professor at Rochester Institute of Technology. Husband for 40 years to the lovely and talented Diane. Father to three children and father-in-law to three more amazing people. I preach, teach, counsel, write and plan in my real job. I teach a subject I love at RIT in my "other job," which is a lot of fun most of the time.... I play piano for our local college choir, and sing and play at church occasionally. I also have a film-related website at www.film-prof.com.
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