It’s never easy to walk away, to depart at the dizzying heights of your craft—occupying a bare corner of invincibility populated by few—reducing talented colleagues to mortals, and skipping a fine line over most of their fissured faults. These qualities not only describe Daniel Day-Lewis‘s retirement from acting, but also his final character, Reynolds Woodcock, in Paul Thomas Anderson‘s Phantom Thread.
Woodcock is an auteurist fashion/dress designer in 1950’s England. Depicted as the most talented in his field, he dresses well, lives a comfortable lifestyle, and is desired by women. In short, Woodcock is masculinity personified, which includes his name.
The film opens to his companion, Alma (Vicky Krieps), explaining Woodcock’s personality to an unknown listener. Soon we’re cast backwards to the moment when he meets her, when she’s nothing more than a clumsy waitress.
Their initial exchange, as Woodcock orders breakfast, demonstrates the editing pace for the film. Most of Phantom Thread is either dominated by long tracking shots—weaving and perusing the decadent and fashionable decor of Woodcock’s home, or by swift cuts between perspective changing close-ups. The close-ups between Woodcock and Alma, and later Cyril (Lesley Manville) and Woodcock, and Cyril and Alma, are visual tugs of war, as three dominant personalities battle for superiority. One half of the film is the Lifestyle network on steroids, while the other is a placid Fifty Shades of Grey.
Woodcock for his part is rarely questioned. His London workshop is filled with a team of seamstresses who remain silent unless spoken to. Likewise, Alma is not the kind to be bossed around. She enters into Woodcock’s world as the third wheel, as Cyril, Woodcock’s sister, has his ear. However, there are darker issues at hand: The movie is called Phantom Thread, surely you didn’t think we’d spend all our time in a tranquil English countryside?
Presented with a character whose unnerving behavior stems from his mother dying at a young age, Day-Lewis exposes every crevice, as he plays part curmudgeon, part gentleman, part infant. Much of his curmudgeoness comes from his hunch posture, and his tick of turning the slightest noises around him, buttered toast and poured water, into perceived cacophonies: his whole day is ruined if breakfast begins poorly. His gentlemanly portions are strongest during his affectionate moments with Alma. When they first meet for breakfast, the scene feels odd. We see an actor who has spent his career stowing himself away in his roles. There are parts of Woodcock, especially when he smiles, where the audience may believe they’re seeing the real Day-Lewis. Finally, the infantile contours of the character are in his need to be taken care of. Woodcock is continually searching for a stern motherly figure.
The rhythm of Phantom Thread is like an ocean, it ebbs and flows. As stated above, much of that comes from the editing. Furthermore, the switching between long tracking shots and rapid cutting is accompanied by swoons of classical overtures and Jonny Greenwood‘s patient and lush score. Each episode, such as the runaway portion, rises to the heights of the music only to settle into the prevailing domestic fare of the film. Once more, many of these scenes are punctuated by some of the best costume work done in the last ten years. Mark Bridges, costume designer, should be writing his Oscar speech right now. His research and representation of haute couture rises to the level of the House of Woodcock’s genius, while fitting the character.
However, Phantom Thread does falter. Woodcock for all his virtues and talents, is an acerbic, cold, and brutish genius who throws women away at a whim. At his worst, he’s a verbally abusive lout. His competing put downs with Alma could be made into a highlight reel of back-and-forths. Yet the crowning moment of the film, when Alma finally puts Woodcock in his place, yields little satisfaction or growth. Throughout the film, we’re led to believe that Alma is relaying her story to an urgent listener, yet nothing comes of this. A false infatuation between Alma and a young doctor disappears as soon as it appears. In fact, Woodcock’s character effectively begins at square one by the two-thirds point of the film.
Furthermore, the last third of the film is a cat-and-mouse game that culminates with a mushroom-filled omelette (yes, that’s as weird as it sounds). As an audience, we’re left wondering why we should care about these characters. Anderson’s biggest misstep is taking the film from being a dark character study of toxic masculinity, to making it an empty sexually unfulfilling dom-driven domestic film. It not only excuses toxic masculinity, but rewards it. In fact, it stunts our understanding of the character, shutting down our emotional and intellectual desire to know more.
Artistically, Phantom Thread might be the best film of the year. Nevertheless, it does little to connect us with it’s characters, though Day-Lewis and Krieps give standout performances, especially it’s main study. While it tries to balance a tale of creative genius run amok tangential to domesticity, it fails to expound on the character at hand. Instead, we’re left taking the long way back round to the center of a circle, never knowing exactly what its thread creates.
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Photo Credit: IndieWire