by: Michael Shields
To commence Across the Margin’s week long ode to cinema in preparation for the 2018 Academy Awards, the case is made for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread for Best Picture of 2017…
Phantom Thread, the eighth cinematic offering from the exceptionally talented director Paul Thomas Anderson, is a wonderfully sophisticated film and a piece of art that is as elegant as it is nuanced and profound. Set in London in the 1950s, Phantom Thread tells the tale of a headstrong dressmaker named Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis) who falls in love with a waitress (Alma, played by Vicky Krieps), a love that oscillates between genuine infatuation and discontent until the embattled couple finds a means to comfort one another. Phantom Thread is the tale of an exceedingly complex relationship. It is a a film meticulously crafted so that the emotional impact of seemingly subtle interactions manifest themselves powerfully, underscoring the intricate bond that lies at the heart of the film. Undoubtedly, Phantom thread is one most beautiful and psychologically fascinating films released in 2017.
Touted as the final performance of Daniel Day Lewis’s career (please, say it ain’t so Daniel!), Phantom Thread is a master class in thespianism. True to the lore of the method acting that has defined his career, Lewis, remarkably yet unsurprisingly, learned how to cut, drape, sew and fully recreate a dress designed by the renowned fashion designer Cristóbal Balenciaga (a man Christian Dior described as “the master of us all”). As is invariably the case, Lewis’s commitment to the film and Woodcock’s character was consummate, his dedication was responsible in this case even for conceiving his character’s name for the film. Lewis’s acting prowess, however, wasn’t the only notable performance within Phantom Thread, as newcomer Vicky Krieps stood toe-to-toe with the legend, functioning simultaneously as both his love interest and his adversary. Krieps describes Phantom Thread as a feminist film, stating that her character Alma’s motives were “very honest and close to her own feelings and own beliefs, which makes her stronger, and a real feminist, because she’s not doing it for the approval, she’s not doing it so that someone goes and says ‘Oh well that’s a feminist’. She’s doing it out of her own emotion.” Krieps’s ability to act as both Woodcock’s muse and the enigma he must decipher in order to allow her love to flow into his eccentric life, is remarkable and pivotal to the success of the film.
Beyond Lewis’s and Krieps’s stunning performances, there is another actor who rounds out the cast in spectacular fashion: Lesley Manville. Manville, known for her work in films by Mike Leigh such as All or Nothing and Another Year, puts forth a commanding performance that at times threatens to steal the show from her onscreen companions. Her character, the sister of Reynolds (named Cyril) whom he calls his special “so and so,” is the conductor to his genius and the true rock that the Woodcock estate was built upon. The siblings’ relationship is not only the tie that binds the film together, but it also holds the insight into fully understanding Reynolds and his needs. Cyril acts as the surrogate mother to her brother Reynolds, a man so infatuated with the loss of their mother that he has sewn a lock of her hair into the lining of a favorite jacket of his. Manville’s unflappable Cyril is reason enough to feast one’s eye on Anderson’s latest, and is a woman who defines polished and dignified yet is as fierce as they come, at one point dressing down Reynolds pointedly, “Don’t pick a fight with me, you certainly won’t come out alive. I’ll go right through you and it’ll be you who ends up on the floor.”
Paul Thomas Anderson’s filmmaking has always been exquisite, complex and shot with a masterly and discerning eye. In Phantom Thread, Anderson’s role in the look, and thus the feel of the film, was heightened with his decision to act as the film’s cinematographer, a task he usually yields to the remarkably talented director of photography Robert Elswit1. What was borne of Anderson’s cinematic assertiveness is an extremely intimate film, where through close-ups and elongated takes the viewer is whisked pointedly and deeply into the confines of a labyrinthine relationship.
It is within this intimacy, crafted delicately by Anderson and heightened by a exquisite and lush score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood (Anderson and Greenwood’s fourth collaboration in this regard), where Phantom Thread thrives. The emotional and psychological weight of Reynolds’s and Alma’s push and pull is omnipresent in every scene, every glance, and every sharply delivered line. In this way Phantom Thread acts as a case study in relationships, and one that casts a glance upon a man set in his ways, only willing to allow another into his life it the fit is just right. But love, Phantom Thread tells us, isn’t always convenient. “It’s up to you whether you want to share your life with me,” Reynolds tells Alma amidst the film’s emotional climax, a dinner that Alma conceived with affection yet Reynolds perceived as an “ambush.” But Reynolds finds out that relationships are not that easy, and that love, and those that love us, often have other plans for us. Fortunately, through the process, it is possible to come upon a measure of content that you never imagined with relinquishing yourself over, and setting free the albatross of the need for control.
Phantom Thread is a film rife with themes that are psychologically complex yet uniquely relatable. It’s a story about obsession, neurosis, mother issues, love, the desire for control, and ultimately the ability to surrender when fetishes, those odd things that delight us, align. Phantom Thread is a film whose revelation acts as a triumphant confirmation of the power of shared desires, and the capability of love to move even the most austere of hearts to emotion. It’s a film terrifically worthy of consideration for the Best Picture of 2017.
Listen to an in depth conversation about Phantom Thread on ATM Media Co’s latest podcast: Welcome To The Party Pal: The Mind-Bending Film & Television Podcast You Didn’t know You Needed!
- Elswit has acted as Director of Photography on six of Anderson’s eight films, all but Phantom Thread and Inherent Vice, the latter of which Mihai Malaimare Jr. shot. [↩]