Phantom Thread (2017)
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cinematographer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Producer: JoAnne Sellar Paul Thomas Anderson, Megan Ellison, and Daniel Lupi
by Jon Cvack
I’ve delayed writing on three separate Paul Thomas Anderson films now, twice with Inherent Vice (2014; though in fairness I genuinely didn’t think I could talk about it with any competent understanding) and There Will Be Blood, which got delayed by weeks, with the details too stale to recall without another viewing. Or I think I was just too intimidated to try.
Paul Thomas Anderson is the most interesting working filmmaker alive right now. He was 25 years old when he directed Hard Eight (1996) and only 27 when he directed Boogie Nights (1997), creating one of the greatest films of the 90s. His initial movies simply made filmmaking look fun, combining the highest level of craftsmanship with an accessible, though profound story; the formula for what creates perfect cinema. What Paul Thomas Anderson achieved for cinema is what David Foster Wallace achieved for literature. They merged high art with engaging and exciting stories, and even that feels like a completely inadequate description. Many wonder what David Foster Wallace would have done if he didn’t pass away so soon, having only written two and a half novels. From many of the stories I’ve read it sounded as though he didn’t want to keep doing the same thing and either was too scared of what else he’d have to do. In some ways, Paul Thomas Anderson’s later films show where great artists go.
The Master (2012) and Inherent Vice aren’t the best Paul Thomas Anderson films. I remember never being more excited for a movie than The Master, leaving disappointed, thinking I missed something, revisiting, later realizing it was simply a different direction for a filmmaker that had spent most of his career making “cool” movies, evolving with There Will Be Blood (2007; another perfect film), and maturing beyond that. Next to There Will Be Blood, The Master is his one of his most beautiful films, containing images iconic enough to remain in my head forever after - of the ship and beaches and the subjects in the mall photography; all of which felt larger than most anything I’d ever seen, as though the filmmakers traveled back in time.
I was particularly excited for Inherent Vice, though having read Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) and The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), I also knew that the film was going to abide by the same seemingly incoherent structure. Yet the idea of Paul Thomas Anderson working with the author - and legendary recluse - Thomas Pynchon, no matter his difficult books, was fascinating to consider. Combined with more moderate complexity of Carver and Hammett’s hard-boiled fiction, I knew it’d be a tough one to follow and while I got further along with the second viewing than the first, I still had another thirty to forty minutes to go and just couldn’t follow the story by then. I have a feeling that when I figure it all out it’s going to be incredible.
Whatever the opinions, it’s clear that The Master and Inherent Vice were harbingers of a new voice and insight, pointing toward a maturity that only age could bridge. In many ways Phantom Thread is the opposite of Anderson’s early work, abandoning the larger multi-narratives that pushed cinematic craft to the furthest levels in favor of a more deliberate and intimate camera, ensuring that every image was a perfect work of art.
There are many great tales about absolute obsession - Frankenstein (book 1823; movie 1931), Moby Dick (book 1851; movie 1956), The Shining (1980), October Sky (1999), and I’m sure I’m leaving out a bunch of obvious others. When I think of obsessive authors I think of the stories about Kafka, J.D. Salinger, Charles Bukowski, or Donna Tartt. I think anyone who pursues a serious creative endeavor would understand the obsession that comes with it. Others remain in that obsession forever; never to find success.
When I consider what it must be like for an artist to have an open canvas to create whatever film you want (within reason, I’m sure), I can only compare it to how the subjects of Ken Burn’s "Baseball" (1994) describe the fan's passion for watching a seemingly ordinary person do such extraordinary work. Given that PTA seems like an overall cool and laid back guy, creating accessibility in which you connect to the storyteller as sharing a worldview or humor (often both). David Foster Wallace had the same aura, and both their work often feels as though it's speaking directly and intimately with the viewer/reader. One thing you often hear with successful artists is that the professional anxiety you expect to go away with success only takes a different form, creating an obsession to maintain or keep improving upon your best work. I think Magnolia (1999) is the best possible version of that type of movie he could make; arguably the best multi-narrative drama ever created. There Will Be Blood is now considered one of the greatest American Films ever made, and the New York Times just voted in the current best film in world cinema of the 21st century.
I consider the pressure to try and create something better. In two interviews, Anderson mentioned that the Phantom Thread story came to him while sick in bed, as his wife Maya Rudolph cared for him with great love and concern. Watching the film, it’s clear that this is a fairly personal project, with A.O. Scott pointing out that the film seems very much about his own experience as an artist.
The story involves successful fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) who lives with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) in a London mansion. Reynolds is a charming though obsessive man, demanding full control over his creations and employees. He meets a waitress at a diner in the English countryside named Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps) who he brings back home to his manor.
I should mention that I had a bit of a situation when watching these first five minutes. I noticed the white sections of the frames and the brighter highlights flashing rapidly, evidently with the projector misaligned (or maybe just an issue with a strong highlight on raw film?). I went outside to tell one of the employees to which a young man informs me that - in case I didn't know - I was actually watching a projected version film. I said I understood that but it’s so apparent that I joked and said I felt like I was going to have a seizure. He then says he can take me to someone who can help, which I welcome as he’s not being at all helpful, but actually meant he could call a doctor who could help me with having a potential seizure. I then went back to the theater as Alma and Reynolds head inside the manor. The images were dark enough to mask the problem, or maybe they fixed the projection. Either way, I was snapped out of the movie for a few minutes, and in the way any great film is designed, I felt like I missed a huge part of the plot.
Once fixed, I discovered one of the prettiest films I’ve ever seen in my life. Reynolds gives Alma a tour of the home, slowly making his way up to the design studio, where he fits her for a dress. Alma is enamored, until his sister Cyril shows up, seemingly out of nowhere, to take the measurements and check on Reynolds who then snaps into an obsessive routine, barking out measurements to Cyril, criticizing Alma’s body and posture.
Watching Daniel Day-Lewis as he offers the tiniest signs of aggression and control, all through a squint of an eye or fake laugh, adds such a thrill of tension. Knowing nothing about the movie, I had no clear where it was headed; whether Reynolds would end up murdering Alma or Cyril or anybody, or if they’d rise up and tour the world, tracking their relationship as fame and fortune entered the picture. The movie gets you lost in its narratives, images, music, and performances, causing me to lose complete track of time.
Reynolds and Alma’s relationship evolves as PT Anderson explores the minute conflicts and feuds that dominate any relationship, all with the added bonus of having brilliant writing and performers to create strikingly real fights that simultaneously feel like a fairy tale. At its most fundamental level, Phantom Thread is about companionship; exploring the flaws between two people who love and need each other very much, even for selfish reasons.
It’s also a film that serves the essential function of cinema - making you feel something good, and ideally something you’ve never felt before. It’s a story that demands repeated viewings, as only by dissecting the minute details could I ever confidently express how this film made me feel. It’s comprised of such beautiful, simple moments, all taking place within a wide spectrum of creative layers, in which every single element shines, from the costumes and makeup to the photography and score. Everything is functioning at the highest level of cinema, and I have a feeling it could be regarded as one of this century’s all-time greats; for turning away from the day’s hottest topics and into a story that allows one to escape into one of the most beautiful and vivid worlds ever created.
BELOW: An artist's egomaniacal volatility
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