“This film has been very divisive, so I’d love to hear what you think about it.”
The Universal Pictures representative spoke these words as the cinema lights dimmed and the audience’s whispers hummed into silence. Half-way through the film I thought, she was right.
In what is rumoured to be his last cinematic role, Daniel Day-Lewis takes a final, well-deserved bow in director Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. The Oscar-winning actor, well-known for his method acting techniques, plays yet another obsessive, contemptable character, similar to those he has played before in pictures like, There Will Be Blood (2007) and Gangs of New York (2002).
The screen appearances of this highly selective actor are far and few between, so you know that when Daniel Day-Lewis is involved you’re in for something special.Phantom Thread aligns itself with this expectation, but refreshingly sidesteps around others.
There are no gangsters, no Western cowboys here, but instead Mr. Reynolds Woodcock: a 1950’s dressmaker, highly talented and sought after by London’s—indeed Europe’s—elite. But it is the stumbling gait of a young waitress with a strange, unidentifiable accent, that catches his eye. The soft-spoken, self-conscious Alma, as she is called, is played by Vicky Krieps, in what may be her first note-worthy performance. Alma is caught up in a whirlwind of attention and drama as Reynold’s transforms her from a small-town nobody into his muse and lover.Yet this film deceives easily, and it takes careful thought to unwrap the hidden meanings that lie scattered beneath the surface of this “romance drama” genre. Beneath the façade of romance and relationship is a dark comedy and horror. The unsettling feeling of demise for the couple, though in which way we cannot be sure, is immediately felt on their first date. The relationship is toxic, subsumed by manipulative and selfish people; there is a desire to know the other but also a desire to be in control—to be satisfied at the other’s expense.
What does Anderson want us to think? What does he want us to see, to feel? I kept asking myself this as the minutes ticked by, but the answer and the film’s meaning eluded me. For Reynold’s controlling, childish immaturity was seemingly ignored by a laughing audience—myself included—as his sarcasm and pure, absolute shade to everyone around him tempted us to like him (important note: this film might just be worth watching even just for Day-Lewis’ shade). The plot, like the characters, appears thin and shaky, something that would not garner praise: a great man seduces a beautiful woman, yet neither one can shake their feelings of attraction for the other, nor the inescapable sense of distance between them. However, Anderson is crafty in creating tension and story through emotion, in scenes that would normally pass us over in five seconds; in the taking of a woman’s measurements, or the ordering of runny eggs, we are introduced to Reynold’s flaws, Alma’s insecurities, and the almost indecipherable desires of both.
“But in this work, I’ve become perfect. I feel just right. But maybe that’s how all women feel in his clothes,” Alma says by the flickering light of flames. The seeking of perfection pervades every frame, every line of dialogue. “It’s just not very good, is it. It’s ugly,” Reynolds murmurs, right before he falls over, onto the very dress he was criticising. But what is really ugly here? The dress, or Reynolds? Or perhaps even Alma?
For this reason, the film has been given many nods for Oscar-nominations; for its heart-achingly beautiful sense of time and place, woven by costume designer Mark Bridges’ heavenly dresses, Anderson’s thoughtful play with natural light and deep shadows, and the non-threatening, spine-tingling art direction of Chris Peters, Denis Schnegg and Adam Squires—there is no doubt that this film is a great one, worthy of such acknowledgement. For Day-Lewis’, Krieps’ and Lesley Manville’s (who plays Reynold’s tight-lipped, hovering big sister, Cyril), riveting performances, Phantom Thread becomes a fantastic must-see for fellow lovers of beauty and complex film-making.In reality, there are only cold, ugly truths. There is no love, only power. There is no coexistence in generosity, but solidarity in solitude. This is not romance, but a battle for control and relevance. The film begins as a dream and ends as a dream, and leaves you shifting uncertainly in your seat.
Phantom Thread is in cinemas now.