Spoiler Level: Mild
I recently watched Phantom Thread and I really enjoyed it, so I am here to do a write-up. A little bit of context before we get started: It was directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is set in 50s London and is about a man called Reynolds Woodcock (played by Daniel Day-Lewis, we’ll talk about the performances in a bit) who makes dresses for women of the English high society. He lives with his sister Cyrill (played by Lesley Manville) who manages the business and also most of his life. Woodcock is someone who can be described as being excessively concerned with trivial details, has the strangest of morning rituals and is just persnickety overall. However, he is very good at what he does. So he puts up a front of being an exacting and controlling individual that reflects his unrivalled skill at dress making. However very early on we learn that he is not as strong as he looks, and is in fact very much like a child, needing implicit care at every turn. We also learn that he was deeply attached to his dead mother whom he’s having dreams about. The important thing here is that he doesn’t find these dreams spooky, rather he finds them soothing. And so to exorcise this, he stitches in secret messages and talismans into the linings of the clothes he makes, these being the other side of his strange practices. Woodcock goes through this constant cycle of finding a muse, making her a dress and eventually tiring of her while she waits for his reciprocation. The flawed Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress from a diner in the countryside is the latest in the line of his muses and the movie pretty much follows their twisted relationship.
Phantom Thread is a movie of many shades. It is humourous, dramatically intense, absurd, haunting and dark. But what is interesting is not knowing when these facets will show up. This is the way the movie builds up tension. It is about people trying to share different social zones, and the resulting agitated and unstable chemistry is brilliantly portrayed. The dialogue is razor sharp and is tempered really well in its delivery and this brings us to the performances. DDL is great in his role. Like always, he is able to totally transform into his character, but the real reason he shines is because of his brilliant co-stars and how he reacts to their performances. Lesley Manville is brilliant as his sister. At times we see them get along organically, almost as if they are one entity, and there are times when the story pits them against one another, and it’s in these scenes that we get some glorious lines. Vicky Krieps as the simple Alma does justice to the way the character tries to understand and absorb the new world and the weird people she finds herself in and with and it’s anybody’s guess whether she is going to embrace it or make a move against Woodcock and everything else. Or both.
If direction was analogous with rally driving, it could be said that Paul Thomas Anderson directs at seven-tenths. Every knob seemed to be turned to the right amount, every element just spoke for itself and nothing was overdone. A car reviewer once said “you don’t drive a Rolls-Royce, you fingertip it”. Weirdly, that is pretty much what comes to me when I think of how Phantom Thread was handled. The setting doesn’t take itself too seriously, and is used in a sparing manner. We get glimpses of the streets, the quiet countryside, this restaurant they frequent to and a New Years Ball, which made for one of my favorite scenes in the movie. Interestingly, there’s no credit for cinematographer, so I’m assuming that PTA did the photography himself. There are many interesting camera movements and choices in here. You have it lingering on a character, waiting for a glimpse of their reaction, and there’s wide sweeps of the room with characters/objects sliding in and out of frames and focus, as if it suggest their fading (or rising) importance. Reviewer Mark Kermode mentioned how the movie had an underlying “fantasy” feel to it. This is kind of true, having an almost palatial treatment by the camera of the “House of Woodcock” with shots of the infinite spiralling staircase, and vast corridors, the sinister woods and even the sliver of the outside world from the bedroom window (even though the house is pretty much on a London street). It doesn’t end there, with the way the dresses are shown (which is surprisingly neutral), the innocent dame in a new home and at the centre of it all, our obsessed and impossible protagonist with greying hair and slender witch like arms. It’s almost got a Beauty and The Beast side to it.
It’s hard to talk about the different components of this movie separately because it all just works really well together. Phantom Thread really is a coherent piece of film. Anyway, let’s talk a little bit about the masterful score by Jonny Greenwood. I had only recently gotten into Radiohead, and the first album I heard was their seminal work ‘OK Computer’ and looking at pictures and live videos, I was quite surprised when I learnt that Jonny, this long haired, T-Shirt wearing, Telecaster wielding angsty looking guy was the only one in the band that knew actual music theory. And even more so when I learned that he was doing full fledged cinema score compositions. Phantom Thread happens to be my first experience (I’m still yet to watch ‘There Will Be Blood’) and to write a score in the classical vein with pianos and strings for a movie like this and still have enough room to infuse your own musical personality (reminiscent of the string arrangements in Radiohead’s latest album, ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’) is really inspired. It’s not plainly cyclical in the conventional sense with recurring themes, it also has that atmospheric sensibility when required. 2017 gave us some great scores: Hans Zimmer had me interested in his work again after a long time with Dunkirk (and Blade Runner 2049) and Alexandre Desplat’s The Shape of Water was great as well, but now I truly feel that Jonny deserved that Oscar.
Phantom Thread is a story about a twisted relationship but the element of the ghost story is present as well. These fever dreams where Woodcock sees his dead mother and these don’t play out like one would expect. Like mentioned earlier, our protagonist sees this as something soothing and the scenes are treated that way. Even the music shapes itself accordingly, instilling this mellow sense of poignancy rather than something that is unsettling or spooky. But the real ghost story within this film has to do with the title itself: that elusive “phantom thread” that defines an artistic cycle of finding an inspiration, creating something that honours it and then abusing it and starting all over again until it defines who you are. It haunts you first and then possesses you, making your body move by itself while stitching a dress or painting a picture or assembling a watch or whatever it is.
Movies like this are harder to score on any scale, or at least I can’t evaluate it in such a manner. However I can tell you that it is quickly becoming one of my favorite movies from last year, currently second only to Blade Runner 2049. It is a period piece, a study of character, it is allegorical and even has a bit of social commentary. All of this, and it was humourous and it made me smile watching the characters interact with each other and just flow in and out of their scenes. The most intimate moments in the movie are actually towards the beginning when Woodcock takes Alma’s measurements to make her a dress. As, this is what defines him. The “phantom thread” that ties them together becomes visible.