One of my favorite games this holiday season is recommending double features that might help spotlight some of the best year-end films. For example, if you can watch Creature From the Black Lagoon right before The Shape of Water, it may well add to your viewing pleasure, and All the President’s Men would make a terrific chaser after watching The Post. But if you want to put two films from 2017 together to show how two totally different filmmakers might attack the same basic idea, then Darren Aronofsky’s mother! might make the perfect lead-in to Paul Thomas Anderson’s lush, disturbing Phantom Thread.
Movies about how art gets made are the most navel-gazing of all navel-gazing movies, inside baseball multiplied by inside baseball. Most people do not have to worry about the power dynamics in a relationship between a creator and a muse, and probably don’t care about that as an idea. But what makes the films of Paul Thomas Anderson work is the way he finds an emotional language for each film that is appropriate. That’s been true since his 1996 debut, Hard Eight, although it was really once he was able to exert the control of Boogie Nights that we got a sense of just how good he is at what he does.
When Anderson was in that early bratty stage of his career, he got dinged by some critics because of the way he was obviously quoting films and filmmakers that excited him, but I’ve always thought those criticisms miss the point. Yes, at first Anderson was aping the moves of other filmmakers, but he was doing it in pursuit of something genuine, something exuberant and delirious, a rush of film language shared by a storyteller who is almost ridiculously excited to introduce you to these characters. The longer he’s worked as a storyteller, the further he’s pushed himself away from that self-conscious voice and towards something that is his — language that is driven entirely by the story he’s telling. Anderson’s last three films have been major steps into a personal style, and with Phantom Thread, he’s made something wholly original.
Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a celebrated dressmaker and designer, and he and his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) run a powerful fashion house in ’50s-era London, a venture that is all-consuming for both of them. Reynolds is brilliant, but he’s also a giant bag of affectations that are indulged by his sister because the result is what keeps people coming back. There are many artists whose behavior is eccentric or even monstrous, and it’s all in service of whatever it is they do, and the people in their lives have to decide how much of that to indulge or allow or encourage. There are also plenty of people who do great work who approach it like a craft, so I certainly don’t buy into the idea that you have to have these appetites to create great art. But for Reynolds Woodcock, everything has to be just so, and that includes the women in his life. They are meant to be background, an occasional release, a beautiful frame for his vision and nothing else. They are interchangeable. When one of them becomes a distraction, they are made to disappear, and a new one is cycled in.
Day-Lewis famously took time off from his career as an actor to become an apprentice to a cobbler, and there is a tactile sensuality to the way he approaches his role here as a man who crafts these works of art from fabric. Anderson positively revels in the details of dressmaking, whether it’s the small army of women who work to bring Woodcock’s visions to life, or the way things move from sketch to final fitting, and it is a gorgeous film. It is a film that is willing to get lost in the way things look and feel, and that’s what I love most about Anderson as a filmmaker. His films are like albums by your favorite band. You put them on because you know how they feel, and each one feels different. I can’t just throw on Boogie Nights if I’m in a Punch-Drunk Love mood, and watching There Will Be Blood will not scratch my Magnolia itch. I seem to be in the minority when it comes to Inherent Vice, a film I love whole-heartedly, and it’s precisely because it felt like Anderson was working to find a way to convey the feeling of being hopelessly high while trying to unravel a mystery, the fuzzy confusion of it all. Here, he wants to draw you into a world that is incredibly private, and the film succeeds because of how well he’s able to make you feel like you’re on the same wavelength as Woodcock and his muse.
Oh, yeah… his muse. Alma. Vicky Krieps enters the film quietly, a waitress in a small country inn. She catches Woodcock’s eye, and he can’t help himself. He invites her out, and that first date is one of the most remarkable sequences Anderson has ever shot, as Woodcock takes her home and begins to dress her, drawn to her because of the blank slate she represents. At first, Cyril sees Alma as just another in a long line of Almas, but there’s something different this time. For the first time ever, Woodcock has brought home someone who knows exactly what she wants and what value she has, and the result is a relationship that upends everything Woodcock has ever known as stable and safe and necessary.
Krieps has been in a number of films I’ve seen before, but this is the moment where she becomes unforgettable. There are few directors who seem to be more in tune with Day-Lewis than Anderson, and you’ve got Day-Lewis taking a giant swing with this character, and there’s Krieps, going toe-to-toe with him in pretty much the entire film, giving as good as she gets. It is a tremendous performance, in no small part because of the vulnerability required. Alma may be playing her own long game here, but that doesn’t mean she is dishonest about what she feels for Reynolds. She’s all-in, and that means there’s no part of herself that she is unwilling to share with him.
There are films that have tried over the years to capture the mania of erotic obsession, and the problem with most of those films is that they ultimately devolve into dirty movies and little else. This film pushes deeply into the need that binds Reynolds and Alma, but never feels prurient or leering, and it never feels like it is interested in the mechanics of sex as opposed to the dynamics. Jonny Greenwood’s score is a living thing, a heartbeat that drives this dizzying exploration of that private space between two people. I have said before that no one can truly know what happens between two people besides those two people, but this film is a terrific attempt at capturing that. There was a film by Peter Strickland a few years ago called The Duke of Burgundy that this reminds me of in some ways, although that was less about a muse. That’s where the comparison to Aronofsky’s mother! seems so apt and interesting. He portrays that as a destructive, almost vampiric cycle, inevitably leading to immolation and a new start, while Anderson’s film plays at something darker, more symbiotic and unhealthy.
Like There Will Be Blood, this film makes some abrupt shifts where you suddenly realize that anything is on the table, and these characters are capable of anything. Like Punch-Drunk Love, I think much of this film is funny, but in a dark, horrifying way, and I am not surprised I got some looks of real scorn when I laughed during my screening. Anderson has a misanthropic side, and while I believe he loves his characters, it is because they are flawed, and he finds those flaws and the scars they can leave in others to be one of the most interesting things about these people.
As Cyril begins to recognize just how dangerous Alma is to the status quo, Alma realizes how good a game she’s going to have to play if she plans to stay around, and Reynolds becomes the prize in a ferocious battle of wills. I love the entire cast, and I love how willing Anderson is here to eschew familiar faces in favor of people who simply become these characters. This movie feels like a real world, self-contained and wholly-realized, and while I rarely use this phrase, I genuinely felt like I was under its spell when I was watching it. This is the kind of full-sensory experience in a theater that Blue Velvet was for me the first time, and there’s something thrilling about a film where you have no idea whether you can trust the moral compass of the characters you’re watching. I have no idea what Reynolds is capable of, and that means there is no safety here, no guarantee of anything like a happy ending. Anderson isn’t telling you a story you’ve heard before, so you have no idea what shape to even expect from things. Once you realize where he’s headed, it becomes a whole different kind of nerve-wracking, and I look forward to seeing the film again so I can really savor the experience now that I know what the film is. It’s such a strange and singular thing that much of my first experience with it was spent off-balance, trying to get my bearings. That’s exactly what Anderson wants, too. He introduces a world built on order and regularity and then blows it up, and we are meant to be as unsettled by it all as Reynolds is.
It would not shock me to see this nominated for technical credits across the board at the Oscars, but it also wouldn’t shock me if the Academy ignores it completely. This does not feel like a movie that was designed to curry favor or to give Oscar voters an easy thing to hang their annual “What do we stand for this year?” sign on, and that’s great news. This is an artist who has been chasing his own voice for the last 20 years, and seeing just how rich and controlled his latest film is only underlines how lucky we are to have him, especially if he really is the last filmmaker to ever direct Day-Lewis.
Phantom Thread is going to be with me long after the conversations about this year’s awards have faded, and for many viewers, this is going to be a film worth an obsession as focused as the one shared by its main characters.
Running time: 130 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic