Anderson’s ‘Phantom Thread’ is seamless
Review — Every year, with the arrival of the fall and winter months, we are blessed with a surplus of fantastic films which showcase directors, actors, cinematographers and composers at the height of their respective crafts. Last year gave us Guillermo del Toro’s monster masterpiece, “The Shape of Water,” Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me By Your Name” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread,” which features three-time Oscar-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis in what may very well be his final role; just a few months ago, the veteran thespian announced his retirement.
“Phantom Thread,” set in 1950s London, is a tale of obsession that takes shape in the world of prestige fashion inhabited by an obsessive -compulsive designer, Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis). The character’s name was born after Day-Lewis jokingly suggested it to P.T. Anderson and was subsequently called on his bluff. So do not feel badly if you laughed at the name; it is meant to be funny. The film opens with the shot of a woman named Alma (played by the brilliant Vicky Krieps) sitting by a fireplace, sharing a story about herself and Woodcock to an unknown listener. The circumstances behind her sharing her reflection are unknown.
The moment serves as an instantly compelling introduction. Slowly, as the fabric of the film unfolds, Alma’s whole story is revealed to us.
It would be wrong to reveal the plotline that ensues in the opening scene of “Phantom Thread,” which is most satisfyingly digested if you go into the film completely blind. Thus, the focus of this review from here on out will be on the technical achievements of the film, of which there are many.
Firstly, there is the film’s costume design (the work of Mark Bridges), which to call jaw-dropping would be an understatement. It is a rare thing, when reflecting on a film’s costumes, that you are unable to pinpoint one specific outfit that is singularly extraordinary, simply because every single one is just so indescribably stunning. For Bridges, work alone, “Phantom Thread” is worth a second viewing. The costumes of the film are more than just articles of clothing — they are characters.
In reviewing a film that touts Daniel Day-Lewis as its star, it would be borderline sacrilegious not to laud his performance. Indeed, Day-Lewis outdoes himself once again with his portrayal of Reynolds Woodcock, bringing a nuance to the character which he had previously showcased in his more flashy roles, such as those in “Lincoln” and “Gangs of New York.” However, one could argue that while Day-Lewis’ performance is a grand feat in cinematic acting, being able to stand one’s own alongside him is one that is far greater.
The aforementioned Krieps, who plays Woodcock’s lover, is absolutely astonishing in a performance that has been criminally overlooked this awards season. Lesley Manville, who plays Woodcock’s methodical sister, Cyril, gives a humorous and heartwarming performance, which not only operates well alongside that of Day-Lewis, but also stands out.
Perhaps one of “Phantom Thread’s” greatest mysteries lies in its credits: there is no credited cinematographer. As it turns out, the director of photography is Anderson himself, who — for some reason — decided he’d rather not be named. Anderson’s preference for anonymity does not make his achievement of lensing this film disappear. The film is stunning to look at. Shots of needles poking through fabric are seductive, Woodcock’s gaze is compelling, and one particular sequence, in which we see a showcase of Woodcock’s designs, is downright beautiful.
Anderson’s direction is wonderfully paradoxical; the film’s first two acts are compellingly directionless. To anybody familiar with Anderson’s filmography, this should not be the least bit frustrating. He is a master of his craft, and if the first two acts of his movie seem like they lack plot, that is because Anderson deliberately crafted the film that way.
Sitting through the first 90 minutes of “Phantom Thread” is whimsically suspenseful, as you ponder what on earth Anderson’s endgame may be. And once the revelation is made, you could not be more satisfied.
At the flick of a switch, the film delves into the realms of absurdist cinema with a grandiose combination of insight and devilishly dark humor. It is a moment that finally confirms the viewer’s suspicion that with “Phantom Thread,” you were supposed to be laughing the entire time.
A film like “Phantom Thread” deserves to be seen in its intended presentation: in the theater, preferably at one that offers it in the 70mm film format. I would encourage anybody interested in seeing it to make the trip to the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline to see the film at one of these special engagements.