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Phantom Thread (2017) directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
A difficult relationship
Daniel Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a prestigious dressmaker working in London in the 1950s in a fashion house with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville). He is a very difficult man to be around due to his easily triggered controlling personality. One day, while he is eating breakfast in a small town hotel, a waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps) catches his attention. He orders a lengthy list of food items from her and then deliberately takes her handwritten notes from her, asking her “will you remember?” When she succeeds in this task he begins courting her.
Their relationship starts out as an unusual and curiously cold one; Reynolds treats her more as one of his models for his finest dresses than as a lover. As time goes on, however, Alma begins to take small and deliberate steps to break his through overly defined rules and comfort zones.
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A keenly-awaited return for Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis collaboration
There Will Be Blood was a pinnacle in the respective careers of one of the most talented directors (Paul Thomas Anderson) and actors (Daniel Day-Lewis) of recent years. Therefore, the prospect of a second collaboration between the two is bound to make any self-respecting film lover sit up and take notice. This is particularly true since Daniel Day-Lewis has recently announced his retirement from acting, leaving Phantom Thread as his epitaph.
Thankfully, it’s a film truly fitting of the weight of expectation put upon it. The film may not necessarily have the most complex of storylines; when all’s said and done, it’s an archetypal melodrama of relationship friction. However, it’s the exquisite triumph of pure cinema over theoretical content that’s the thing here. As a director, Anderson has been compared to Kubrick in his style and feel - and this is arguably the film that comes closest to the studied, coldly perfectionistic feel of the latter (amongst his work, it is arguably most similar to Barry Lyndon). There is a painstaking care and delicacy towards composition, framing, camerawork and scoring (a restrained classical theme from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood). It’s a rich pleasure for the eyes and ears but, at the same time, unfolds in a distant and deliberate manner.
Two startling central performances
It’s a style that’s entirely befitting of its central character, a dressmaker with an eye for beauty but an almost unyielding insistence on having his own quiet space to carry out his work. Reynolds Woodcock is a person who is almost impossible to relate to in the normal “human warmth and connection” sense of the word, someone who doesn’t really need people so much as compliant objects for his preoccupation towards female beauty in the form of dresses. In many ways, he’s an obnoxious and insufferable character whom very few actors could render as anything other than a one-dimensional bully. However, Daniel Day-Lewis, as always, inhabits and embodies him in such a way that he feels extremely real as a human being. He even displays a small amount of charm on occasion (for example, during his initial meeting with Alma) which shows that he is able to draw people in when he needs to - a crucial detail of the dynamics which make such a controlling relationship click.
It’s the relatively unknown Vicky Krieps who plays his female counterpart. Unexpectedly, she amply holds her own against Day-Lewis. Playing an initially rather mousey character, Krieps uses the subtlest of gestures very effectively at communicating her mix of both pure admiration at his skills and bemusement at the idiosyncrasies of his personality. However, as her actions towards Reynolds become increasingly stubborn and even dangerously rash her role becomes more complex, making for some startling dramatic sparks between the pair.
In amongst the beauty there are moments of sheer (and often hilarious) tension - not just in the performances but in the use of sound, notably during the memorable breakfast scenes where the simple scrape of butter on toast becomes more akin to fingernails on a blackboard. It’s a realistic depiction of the little irritations that often creep into long-term relationships, even if this particular relationship is somewhat outside of the norm. Later on in the film, the cooking and consumption of mushrooms assumes a significance that doesn’t seem particularly conducive to a healthy partnership.
Phantom Thread is a movie that says so much about relationships between men and women and the dysfunctionality of their traditional respective roles. However, the pure sense of cinema and graceful craftsmanship is central to it all and can be enjoyed no matter what you may take away in terms of deeper meaning.
Runtime: 130 mins
Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson
Script: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville, Brian Gleeson