Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville
A rather Hitchcock-inspired, hell-hath-no-fury, twisted and gothic love story, Phantom Thread pulls a lot of inspiration from all sorts of classic cinema and stitches it all together, whilst retaining its 1950s setting and fairly modern dialogue. Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest has been hailed possibly his best, with both Oscar and BAFTA nominations for Best Film amongst others, including Best Director and Best Actor for Daniel Day-Lewis in what he has announced as his final film role before retiring. But does Phantom Thread live up to all of its award-nomination hype?
Having lost interest in his latest young muse, eternal bachelor Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) is a couturier to the elite looking to be inspired again. On a whim, his sister, Cyril (Manville), a likewise unmarried woman with whom he also lives, suggests he take off to the countryside for a bit of a holiday, and she will follow the day after. As it turns out, she can’t leave him alone for more than a day without him becoming enamoured with yet another young ingénue, Alma (Krieps), who may or may not turn out to be more of a femme fatale for the older Woodcock. In very much an opposites-attract connection, they enjoy many ups together as well as endure many strange, bunny-boiling downs in a bid to somehow keep their eccentric relationship working, Woodcock all the while trying to retain his creativity and independence and Alma trying to hold on to Woodcock’s affection.
It’s nothing new to see the main relationship in a film revolve around an older man and a younger woman. Many may even take offence to it. However, unlike most stories that centre on such a thing, Phantom Thread not only uses that relationship as a starting point, but it actually builds on it in a genuine and proper way that leads to a very interesting story. There’s an immediate affinity between Woodcock and Alma upon their meeting, and though it may seem an odd pairing today, perhaps its 1950s setting would have been more accepting of the two of them. It’s like a sixth sense between them – Alma recognises something intriguing and exciting in the man, and Woodcock’s eyes and creative mind awaken at the sight of his new source of inspiration. As we come to learn more about the personalities of the pair, we find that they are, despite their initial attraction, very alike in some ways and very chalk and cheese in others: Alma is a talkative and head strong working-class woman, perhaps brought on by her very European roots (we’re never told specifically where she is from but she is portrayed to be quite obviously of foreign origins, with Krieps herself hailing from Luxembourg). Woodcock is quiet, high class and also head strong. The result is a tempestuous relationship that toes the line of a Stockholm syndrome bond with oedipal themes. If that sounds a tad heavy, that’s because it is.
As previously mentioned, a lot of classic Hollywood is present in Phantom Thread. Anderson’s stated in interviews that he had been watching a few older movies whilst pondering Phantom Thread, but what comes across most are the Hitchcockian nuances and borrowed themes: from the camera angles during early car journeys, which are very reminiscent of Vertigo, to the score – Radiohead guitarist/keyboardist-turned-film-composer Jonny Greenwood’s soundtrack suggests Bernard Herrmann influences – and Woodcock/Day-Lewis’ physicality and characteristics similar to that of Hitchcock regular James Stewart. Add into that the age difference between Krieps and Day-Lewis, just like that of Stewart and his Hitchcock female co-stars Grace Kelly and Kim Novak, as well as the darker turns the narrative often takes, and it becomes plain as to why Anderson may have pulled influence from one of the world’s greatest directors of dark and suspenseful films. There are also some nods to older Hollywood, such as the grandeur of a lot of Woodcock’s world, the costumes and the set, the sweeping stairway takes and even the dissolves between scenes. Phantom Thread feels like a love letter to its predecessors whilst keeping its own uniqueness and standing on its own two feet.
In mentioning the score, this is one of those films that comes along every so often that contains a soundtrack that is so distinctive it is practically its own character. At times, Greenwood has it so muted, much like Woodcock in his beloved peace and quiet, and at others he has it reflect Alma in that it sounds mischievous, bordering on madness. It is also often juxtaposed to what is happening within a scene – a serious conversation may be occurring but Greenwood allows another level of consciousness to be present through his up-beat and up-tempo composition. This juxtaposition is derived from that of the relationship between Woodcock and Alma themselves – they shouldn’t work, but they do. Occasionally there is no music at all, perhaps during scenes when characters have no need for musical exposition – their dialogue says it all. The music eventually changes with the tone of the film, signalling a turn in the characters themselves as well as their story. It’s no wonder Greenwood has been acclaimed for his work here, having been nominated for an Oscar (at the time of writing), BAFTA and Golden Globe.
Despite being his swansong (whether or not this will prove to be, only time will tell), Phantom Thread is not necessarily Day-Lewis’ greatest performance. He puts in a marvellous turn as Woodcock, his ability to be both understated and a strong screen presence put to good use, but his scenes are often subtly and smoothly stolen by Krieps (it’s a shame her performance has failed to be recognised with any mainstream award nominations). Alma is a character who develops aspects in her personality that may have been dormant but are awoken by Woodcock, putting weight behind the thought that love can drive people to the edge of insanity. She already strikes us as perhaps a potentially unbalanced character by the way she very easily and instantly accepts Woodcock’s invitation to dinner when they first meet, after exchanging very few words. Krieps manages to keep a lot of Alma’s characteristics internalised until the moment they rise to the surface and round out her true personality, often times helped along unknowingly by Cyril (a wonderfully modest but significant performance from Lesley Manville). Perhaps it is the youth in her that has kept her from realising her nature, and the opposite can be said for Woodcock – he is much older and already set in his ways, unwilling to change for Alma until she takes matters into her own hands. A wonderful chemistry builds between Day-Lewis and Krieps that is directed in a very natural and yet unnatural fashion by Anderson, making for an interesting and beckoning story.
It’s clear to see just why Phantom Thread has been so critically acclaimed, but there is certainly an element of overhype attached to it. With it potentially being Day-Lewis’ final film and with Anderson already being quite the commended director expectations were already high, however some chances have been missed where acclaim should be given, i.e. to Krieps. She provides a lot of the film’s narration and her portrayal of a scorned woman in love is relatable, albeit on a very dramatic level. As a whole the film is certainly worthy of high praise, but more may have been expected of a final performance from Day-Lewis. As for Anderson, it is an excellent addition to his film tapestry and expectations for his next offering will now be even higher.