On the surface, Phantom Thread's premise is as far away from anything I'd be personally interested in as you can get. I have less than zero interest in fashion or dressmaking, and find the usual elitist smugness I get from the best creators in that business to be suffocatingly annoying. As far as my cinematic taste is concerned, as much as I believe in the old adage that the quality of a film is tied to how it executes it subject matter, and not the subject matter itself, I'm usually weary about investing my time in stuffy period dramas about the unspoken feelings between stuffy rich people. All of that being said, of course I was going to be the first in line when the press screening for Paul Thomas Anderson's latest was announced. I was still dealing with an especially formidable cold that day, and still made it a point to make the trip. Hell, I would have gone if I were bleeding profusely out of every possible orifice.
Even then, mainly because of the subject matter, I figured that Phantom Thread wouldn't make much of a personal splash, the way that masterpieces like There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia did. If there's one lesson I should take from Phantom Thread, it's to never underestimate PTA's downright natural ability to make any premise and any character fascinating and awe-inspiringly cinematic. Hidden underneath its veneer of a prestige period drama, one that's admittedly an absolute delight to look at from the first frame to the last, hides one of the most beautiful, honest, and downright sensual depictions of what it truly means for two people with, shall we say, difficult personalities to fall deeply and madly in love with each other, and the many compromises and hardships they must endure in the process. Love, from inception to maintenance, is a messy business.
The first act of Phantom Thread showcases a meticulous and deliberate pacing in the way that it sets up the intentionally hilariously named dressmaker extraordinaire, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), as he runs his business out of his home, with help from his strictly no-nonsense sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), in 1950s London. Woodcock is so much of an archetype of the "perfectionist misunderstood genius", that he almost comes across as a parody. As he rails on about how loudly her girlfriend is eating her breakfast while he's trying to concentrate on his work, how he flippantly considers "getting rid of her" because she's proving to be a distraction, all communicate a clear intention by PTA and Day-Lewis that we're dealing with a broken character who might not be as strong inside as he tries so hard to showcase on the outside.
Woodcock's M.O. as far as his personal relationships are concerned is to jump from one pretty prop to another, arm candy to perhaps show the society that so adores him that he's a "normal" individual with "normal" social appetites. All of this dynamic changes when he sets his target on a seemingly lowly waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps), who at first dogmatically goes along with Woodcock's every "boy genius" whim and tamper tantrum, only to gradually turn into a formidable opponent, and eventually a formidable companion, as she proves herself to be just as, and sometimes even more, obsessive, shrewd, yet uncompromisingly passionate about the things she loves, Woodcock being at the head of that list. During the first hour of Phantom Thread, PTA toys with the audience's expectations from a traditional prestige period drama/romance, showing the women that surround Woodcock as mere instruments for him to achieve his singular vision as a genius. He carefully screws with the dials of this power dynamic as the story elegantly moves along, having Woodcock and the audience come face-to-face with the reality that he might be more in need of care, compassion, and artistic input from these women as he'd like to let on.
On the surface, he is the irreplaceable creator of these gorgeous dresses, but PTA always makes us notice the myriad of women, from the two that define Woodcock's existence, to the many seamstresses who build his dresses with insane attention to detail, who are instrumental to achieving his vision. In a way, PTA himself, who was hailed as a singular auteur when he was in his mid-20s, only to later come to an understanding of how much of a collaborative process filmmaking is after working with Robert Altman right before the great director's death, must have had some intensely personal insight into the deeply human arc that Woodcock goes through.
His usual cinematographer, Robert Elswit, wasn't available this time around, so PTA decided to act as the de facto DP and camera operator. His stable yet efficient lens captures the elegance and beauty of its somber London locations. The way the camera lingers on the celestial thrill of the artistic process, from making a dress to cooking an omelet, is sensual enough to feel downright sexual. He approaches the making of his own film with the same grace his characters approach their creations. The ever-present lush score from Jonny Greenwood is sublime, and the intrinsically detailed sound design plays a very important part in the overall experience. The performances are expectedly top notch. If this is the role that Day-Lewis really goes out on, which I still don't believe will be the case, what a layered and complex part to do so. I don't know where PTA found Vicky Krieps, but she's a natural star right out of the gate, and Lesley Manville proves once again what an invaluable character actress she is.