Phantom Thread eludes being pinned down, with beguiling mastery. From the word go, you are never quite sure where it is heading, or exactly what sort of film you are watching, but – much like leading lady Alma – you are drawn inextricably into its still and disquieting depths.
To describe Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest (and possibly best) film as having a dual nature would be to merely scratch the surface of its myriad and mirrored themes, styles and tones – each pair interweaving to form a thick tapestry. Here is a study in order and disarray, restraint and abandon, intimacy and distance; it’s a love story that’s tense, supernatural and – dare I say – bizarrely sexy.
PTA has always excelled at bringing eccentric characters to life with compassion, whether it’s Adam Sandler’s volatile pudding-coupon collector in Punch-Drunk Love, or Joaquin Phoenix’s traumatised war veteran in The Master, but the scope and dexterity of Phantom Thread elevates this tale of intrigue, control and unconventional passion to a higher plane.
An early scene in the film shows couturier Reynolds Woodcock (played with wit and fervour by the incomparable Daniel Day-Lewis) escaping the stifling dying throes of his latest transient infatuation, as well as the self-imposed restrictions of his orderly life, by fleeing to a country retreat. We see Reynolds gripped with intent as he motors down country lanes at night, his face lit dramatically, as if magically transported from a Hitchcock film. It’s only natural at this point to assume we’re watching a thriller; the audience is primed by the score, angles and lighting to expect the unexpected. What could be more unexpected, then, than the subsequent meet-cute between Reynolds and his new muse, Alma (an enchanting Vicky Krieps)?
The intensity is still there as the characters lock eyes across a quaint dining room, but the tone, as Alma bumbles into a nearby table with flustering charm, is distinctly sweeter. Reynolds flirts in a decidedly oddball fashion by placing the world’s longest – and most particular – breakfast order, before inviting Alma out to dinner. As Alma notes playfully on his bill, Reynolds is a “hungry boy”, and hunger – for control, creative expression and other people – forms an inescapable element of the film.
Along with its notes of thriller-esque tension, strains of nostalgic romance and crisp, pithy repartee, Phantom Thread is also, believe it or not, a ghost story. The invisible spectre of his mother’s memory haunts Reynolds figuratively throughout, but also literally, thanks to a poison-mushroom-induced hallucination – providing a moment as unsettling as it is touching. The fact that Anderson directly follows this otherworldly encounter with one of the film’s few vocal declarations of love underscores his impressive ability to flit deftly between genres in a blink, all while maintaining a pervasive, consuming intensity that keeps you trapped in the taut bubble of Alma and Reynolds’ relationship.
Incidentally, it would be criminal to dissect Phantom Thread without giving due credit to the immersive score by Jonny Greenwood, which effortlessly mirrors the film’s unnervingly enticing mood. It swerves from sparse, rumbling piano lines into sharp, soaring strings, gliding and undulating like a sweeping skirt one moment, plucking and pointed as a needle the next, echoing Beethoven or Debussy – all with as much winsome ease as Anderson’s visual aesthetics evoke a bygone glamour.
The dialogue is clever, prickling with pent-up energy, and delivered fluidly by Day-Lewis, Krieps, and Lesley Manville, in a brilliant turn as Reynolds’ shrewd, unflappable sister. The film is also surprisingly funny, in part thanks to how fully Day-Lewis inhabits his character. Reynolds’ fastidiousness and repressed rage are conveyed with such earnestness that he reflects every uptight curmudgeon you might know in real life with perfect clarity. To watch Reynolds seething, tight-lipped, while the neckline of one of his beautiful creations is smeared across the wearer’s hot chin before she passes out in a drunken stupor is subtly hilarious (albeit poignant); but when he snaps and marches up to the Countess’s bedroom, to demand the dress is returned to him directly from the unconscious woman’s body – “Take the fucking dress off, Barbara, and bring it to me or I’ll do it myself!” – it is both absurd and sublime.
This sequence is key to illustrating the dynamic of Reynolds and Alma’s relationship. It is upon Alma’s insistence – that the Countess “doesn’t deserve” the dress – that Reynolds finds the impetus to retrieve his work, rather than just pouting sourly and stewing in his own juices. For all Reynolds’ power within his microcosm, he lacks Alma’s nerve and determination. It becomes a twisted match made in heaven. After reclaiming the gown, now slung casually over its creator’s shoulder like the loot from a heist – another instance of control within the film; it was never about the dress being spoiled – they kiss passionately, the Bonnie and Clyde of 1950s haute couture.
Likewise, the film’s couple waver between passionately captivated with each other and wilfully antagonistic. Alma tests Reynolds, purposefully pushing all his buttons to ascertain his breaking point. And despite his initial veneer of charm, Reynolds rapidly proves to be domineering, selfish and downright rude. He’s therefore an unlikely choice for a romantic lead, and indeed the couple’s dynamic is about as far from the archetypal onscreen romance as you’re ever likely to see. Yet somehow it’s impossible to deny the strength of their connection, with moments as devastatingly lovely as when Reynolds goes to find Alma in the debauched throng of a New Year’s Eve party. His frustration and urgency are tempered by his clear and overwhelming need to be reunited with Alma, and they are drawn to each other like magnets.
It’s easy with sequences like this to get swept up in the alluringly soft colour palette and ardent gazes, and forget the glaring imbalance between the pair, right down to their backstories. After all, we know so much about Reynolds’ past and present in exacting detail, whereas we learn little to nothing about Alma, whose very birth country remains a mystery. But if knowledge is power then Alma might have the upper hand. Indeed, when Reynolds complains to his sister of how his entire life has been thrown into chaos since Alma’s arrival, she appears behind him, a silent apparition in a starched white seamstress’ gown, leaving an “air of quiet death” in her wake. In this way, Reynolds has made himself vulnerable; he freely relates intimate details of his outlook and personal history to her on their first date, requiring nothing in return, which she gladly provides. And so, from the earliest stages, seeds of the shifting power dynamic have already been sown.
What this, and all of the film’s concurrent themes, amounts to is equilibrium. At times, the dynamic appears to teeter on a precipice, before diving in one direction and then the other – Reynolds the unstoppable force, Alma the immovable object – but the characters ultimately find their balance. This perfect bubbling cocktail of moods is so consistent throughout that we are not sure until the very last scene what its overarching theme is, and perhaps not even then.
One of Reynolds Woodcock’s peculiar habits (and there are many) is to sew hidden words into the inner lining of his garments. While Phantom Thread is as much an unsettling tale of destructive power play as it is a yarn of genuine, fated romance, maybe its real message is hidden, a wry wink buried in its lush, layered swathes.
N.B. As our site is UK based, we work off the selection of films released in cinemas in the UK in 2018.
So to recap, here’s our Top 20 to 1!
1st – PHANTOM THREAD