New Year celebrations have only recently been and gone, but it may well prove difficult to find a more perfect film than Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread in 2018.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise from a director behind two of the great film masterpieces of the 21st century – There Will Be Blood and The Master – and renowned as one of the few true visionaries in American cinema. And it is even less of a surprise given that Daniel Day-Lewis – perhaps the finest male actor of our time – plays the leading role. Yet Phantom Thread shows no sign of being intimidated by these expectations, indeed it seems to revel in them.
The setting is a glamorous fashion house in 1950s high society London; the main character is Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a renowned dressmaker whose designs inspire such passion that women – as one aspiring customer puts it – dream of dying in them. As is so often the case with creative geniuses, Reynolds is what today would be considered an obsessive compulsive.
Intolerant of disturbance, he has turned his studio – which is also his home – into a hermetically sealed oasis of predictability, with only staff and authorised customers allowed in from the outside world. The exception to this rule – other than the wispy mistresses Reynolds is constantly sending packing – is his unmarried sister Cyril (the exceptional Lesley Manville), a woman of few words who runs the ship with icy composure.
This finely balanced universe is soon disrupted by the arrival on the scene of Alma (Vicky Krieps), at first apparently nothing more than another of Reynolds’ temporary amusements. But contrary to Reynolds’ plans, Alma – whose naturalism stands in direct contrast to Reynolds’ mannerism – succeeds in making herself a permanent fixture in his life, and even in gaining a certain measure of power over him.
This doesn’t happen without a struggle though, and the sparks that fly are thrilling to watch – thanks to the genuine magnetism between the two actors. Krieps refuses to be phased by Reynolds’ stardom (and neither by that of Day-Lewis) and challenges his artificial cocoon with real relish. In this clash of two powerful personalities, Phantom Thread resembles The Master, though in a much lighter form. Indeed, by Anderson’s standards this is truly uplifting stuff.
Phantom Thread is similarly flawless on an aesthetic level, as is fitting for a film about a perfectionistic fashion designer. Reynolds’ obsessive attention to detail can be seen as a reflection of Anderson’s own meticulousness as a director, with the same care the former lavishes on couture devoted by the latter to silky smooth cinematography and marvellous mise en scène. A special mention must go to regular Anderson collaborator Jonny Greenwood for his sumptuous score, an all-enveloping soundscape of piano and strings that is a character in itself.
Maximilian Von Thun | @M3Yoshioka