Phantom Thread: Asking Questions Whether We Like it or Not
Phantom Thread is a completely unnecessary film. It’s lavish, indulgent and long, hiding it’s two-hour run time behind a smirk that begs you to ask if this is worth your time. It’s core narrative of 1950s couture leaves you feeling unsettled, the message Paul Thomas Anderson scrawled across such gorgeous costume design, sitting squarely in your mind. But that unsettled feeling is still there, hitting the nerve at the very core of all art we rarely think about because it’s ugly: the pursuit of creativity is driven by a helpless selfishness that despite being unnecessary, is entirely inescapable.
It helps that Phantom Thread is anchored by sublime performances all around, including that of Anderson who puts on a directing masterclass. But of course Daniel Day-Lewis as haughty couture designer Reginald Woodcock is at the centre of this, and if it is truly his last role it’s another notch on the belt of the greatest thespian to ever try the craft. The enormous affinity for the man courses throughout and I could feel the appreciation Anderson feels for Day-Lewis, born from their earlier collaboration on There Will Be Blood.
While Day-Lewis is certainly given ample responsibility in carrying the film, it’s his counterpart in Vicky Criepes playing his muse, that meets Day-Lewis halfway giving astonishing performance. The scene of their first meeting set to Woodcock ordering an obscene amount of food for breakfast is somehow funny, awkward and sensual all at the same time. At the end of the film I felt guilty for not knowing who she was, immediately watching Outside the Box, The Colony and Gutland and being equally impressed. The mutual respect the two have for each other as actors is clear to see, even if their relationship on screen is full of twisted contempt. There’s the constant nagging of debauchery and violence sitting beneath every conversation, and the only person with a true grasp of the situation being Lesley Manville’s Cyril, Woodcock’s calculated sister and Co-owner of their fashion house.
It would be very easy to laugh at the pretentiousness of the entire thing. The establishing shots of Woodcock (the name alone) neatly drawing up long purple socks, and aggressively combing his hair into place, is enough to know what you’re getting into. The quiet violence surrounding the multiple breakfast scenes caused many nervous chuckles throughout my two viewings. Somehow though, Anderson and co., manage to make it believable and more importantly, salient. I might not recognize this world, but as a director Anderson allows me to understand it, or at the very least, let's me think that I do.
And like his other work, Anderson is in complete control of set and setting, wrenching the tension higher with every scene until you inevitably want to jump out of your seat and scream expletives at the screen. As There Will Be Blood was interested in the unspoken consequences of trauma, so to does Phantom Thread live comfortably upstairs - centered on the unspoken anxieties born from a never ending need to define success. Who are we with no one to recognize us? How can I define myself if I have no parameters? What am I to them? Phantom Thread understands all of these questions and forces us to confront them - it’s final scene a reminder that unnecessary questions are still a very real consequence of living.
This is the rare film where I can’t answer the question of whether or not I liked it. Such a question is more complicated than an a simple yes or no but even asking if I enjoyed Phantom Thread provokes pause. Do I admire it? Respect the talent involved and skill it took to create? Undoubtedly so. Phantom thread is beautiful and not just in the fashion sense which is the easy thing to point to. A lot of the cinematography Anderson took on himself and goes uncredited, since frequent collaborator Robert Elswit was busy at the timing of shooting.
If it was anyone else responsible for Phantom Thread, and Daniel Day-Lewis wasn’t attached, I would not have been chomping at the bit to see it. It would have been fine, and the term indulgent would have been used pejoratively, whereas Anderson is so meticulous in the creation of his films, indulgence carries a reverential tone.
I think Phantom Thread deserves your time, but do understand this: It is film basking in its totally unnecessary existence and knowing full well. But what does that really matter? Because this review lives in that exact pantheon and I’m selfish enough to think that art like this matters. I’m just happy that art is given the opportunity to exist, necessary or not.