Phantom Thread is a strange film, one that could only really sprout from the mind of writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson. Yet, its strangeness might be precisely what offers viewers so much to eat up.
Following master fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he courts Alma (Vicky Krieps), the film revels in the psychological dynamics between the two as their relationship grows. From misunderstanding each other’s intentions to nailing each other’s faults directly on the head, the two constantly negotiate emotional control. It’s often overtly uncomfortable, toned by a sense of deliberateness in Anderson’s delivery. We’re meant to, ourselves, become a third party in the fluctuating conversation.
That aspect of the film, the ambiguity and the resulting passive aggressiveness, is deliciously hilarious in its nastiness, especially when blurted with full pompous force by Daniel Day-Lewis. Woodcock is rendered utterly charming, magnetically powerful and horribly ridiculous, all at the same time.
But the relatively unknown Vicky Krieps goes toe-to-toe with Day-Lewis, even owning him in certain scenes. The film likely wouldn’t have worked without her turning in a performance so effectively controlled, her glare as cutting as razor blades, because much of the content literally requires Krieps to dominate her co-star with her presence. And thankfully, Alma is given the necessary agency and moments of power to keep the film from becoming some kind of sick show.
In Anderson’s construction of story, which is both fiercely and elegantly polished, Phantom Thread can be described as a genuine psychological romance — a subgenre not too common in contemporary cinema. But there’s also something about the director’s touch that evokes a nearly dreamlike aura when watching the film, similarly to the effect of The Master.
This film is, by all means, about love. When Woodcock and Alma are in sync — and especially in that climactic moment when they finally come to a true understanding of what exactly makes the other tick — the characters seemingly float in space and time, lifted up by the rich and depthful film photography of Anderson and his camera crew, the transfixing work of costume designer Mark Bridges and the somehow pleasantly visceral, overwhelmingly wistful and absolutely enchanting score by Jonny Greenwood.
As the credits start to roll, Phantom Thread begins to feel like a lovely dream itself. It’s an experience that’s hard to put to words, but it’s one that we long for and fall for in storytelling.
Featured image via Focus Features.