There’s a lot about Phantom Thread which reminds me of Paul Thomas Anderson’s earlier work The Master – which, while solid film making, and replete with some astonishing feats of acting – was something I actively hated because of who the film was about (*cough*Scientology*cough*). The fact that such bleakly constructed characters can somehow function in the world was – at the time – a trifle too much for me at the time; that there could be people so evil and cruel as to manipulate broken individuals for their own gain… All a bit much.
Phantom Thread isn’t similar to The Master in terms of narrative or structure, more so that it has a tonal similarity, and its characters are also fairly unique specimens. Part of its value (and it has that in spades) is that this is a film which challenges you essentially from the get-go, to figure out exactly what it is you’re bearing witness to here. We’re shown the fastidious life and work of society fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) – great name – who has things the way he wants them. He has needs that must be met; he has habits and hobbies; he has routines that are of the utmost importance to him. When things don’t go according to plan – the un-solicited pot of tea; the too-loud cutting of toast; the impertinent question – he becomes unstuck.
Daniel Day-Lewis is playing someone here who uses people as props – so rigid and fixed in his routines and ways that any kind of interruption is too much for him to cope with. He’s someone without a filter (for the most part) and well-heeled enough that he can essentially get away with any number of vile behaviours. The dynamic he shares with his sister, Cecil (Lesley Manville; here she’s brilliant and an as cold as ice) is one of co-dependency, somewhat sickening, something Oedipal (perhaps) at best, and evil at worst. The dynamic that we see unfold between him and his sister, then him and his new muse/love interest (Vicky Krieps) shows the absolute worst one might ever encounter as the lengths and means by which a brilliant artist’s whims are handled.
Paul Thomas Anderson has again made in this film another unique entry into his canon; each of them, be they successful (most of them) or not (Inherent Vice) makes distinctive, unexpected choices, and applies stylistic touches to them you’d not expect. He manages to capture the more bleak nature of English winters in his aesthetic; it seems perennially cold and grey both inside and out, but there’s beauty under the surface. Phantom Thread shows him as an auteur adopting a classicist style: reserved, withdrawn, almost stately in his depiction of this small world. Jonny Greenwood’s sparse piano score is astonishing, as are Mark Bridges’ costumes.
Phantom Thread is a fascinating piece of work; a character study of otherworldly people operating amid their own rules, morality and standards. They’re almost like aliens. It’s bizarre, but amazing.