Typical Oscar fare – prestige pictures, for example – have often found a way, whether through perfect cinematic technique or pure emotion, of sweeping us off our feet. So, how do we react when a new film from a trusted source repeatedly, even to the point of comically, rejects our wanting to swoon over it? Paul Thomas Anderson returns with his eighth directorial feature, Phantom Thread, and though its premise – a stern, habitual dressmaker engaging in a roller-coaster of a romantic relationship with a waitress-turned-assistant and muse – seems a rich source of everything Oscar voters line up to reward, in addition to its period setting eliciting different fawning over, it subverts expectations with mechanical execution.
Put more succinctly, Phantom Thread is a love story that’s far from romantic, and more so purposefully bemusing. There are movies that you like, that you don’t and that you are unsure of even hours after the credits roll; somehow, PTA’s latest encompasses both the former and the latter. A brief Google search partially defines the movie as a “crime film,” and ironically enough, searching for a consistent narrative tone is in and of itself a perilous mystery. The moment you get caught up in your expectations, detecting shreds of evidence that might support your theories, is the moment you’re left stranded. After all, this isn’t the first time the director has playfully toyed with how romance stories are depicted and told cinematically (see: Punch-Drunk Love).
Instead of dreary urban landscapes and the dangers of seedy phone sex operations, Phantom Thread treats us to 1950’s Southern Tory glitz and glamour – similarly treacherous waters, so to speak (though with some proper Yorkshire scenery occasionally thrown in for good measure). Though while Punch-Drunk Love often jarringly switches from familiar, traditionalist romance movie tropes and cues – swelling orchestral music as lovers embrace, for one – to dark comedy and violent dysfunction, Phantom Thread more subtly makes its seemingly conventional story (on paper) develop into something more visibly offbeat, and even vaguely malicious at times. With every turn in the plot, it’s a dish whose flavor in the middle of the palate elicits the right profile, but the finish is off; not so much that it’s foul as much as it’s just, well, off.
Like any foodie or craft beer snob will likely tell you, there is a certain satisfaction in figuring out exactly what that indecipherable note is or, at the very least, reminds them of. Phantom Thread’s subtle emotional peaks and valleys provoke a similarly faux-academic engagement, and while that may sound like a backhanded slight, it isn’t; rather, from any viewer’s perspective, it’s actually quite humbling. Thanks to PTA’s appropriately disquieting, playfully deceiving craft, we can enjoy a viewing experience that continually subjects us to our own wrong-headedness, noble as our intentions may be. It isn’t punishment; what on Earth is draconian about watching Daniel Day-Lewis and fellow scene-stealer Vicky Krieps live and breathe the scenery they chew to shreds?
Speaking of whom, these two don’t merely insinuate themselves into this meticulously-conjured vision of post-war English elegance and revitalization; they are as one with every hallway, stairwell and wood-lined parlour as Reynolds Woodcock’s models are with their carefully crafted dresses. Knowing this is Day-Lewis’s last film role – that we know of yet – will have no doubt brought a tearful eye to many, and his committed portrayal of an unsympathetic individual is as tragic as it is occasionally heartwarming, in spite of Reynold’s objectively cold interior and exterior. Krieps, on the other hand, plays her part with such mystery, delicately defining the distinctions between love and commitment we often don’t consider. Not to mention, she frequently upstages the colleague taking his final bow, and hardly anyone could make any complaints in that regard.
The story they serve, as well, is one of greater significance than it may immediately suggest. While Phantom Thread’s narrative could be read as timely for its poetic depiction of abusive relationships, and whose conclusion fails to trivialize the mental abuse put forth, it could also be a meta-narrative and meditation on artistic creation. Obviously, that creates a bit of a tricky situation with Day-Lewis’s Reynolds no doubt representing the artist and Krieps’s Alma as his ‘project’ – or, rather, his one of purportedly many other failed relationships. A less-experienced filmmaker might have approached this sort of subtext unintentionally dehumanizing the subject’s subject, but not only does Alma maintain agency throughout the story, she represents how wonderous it can be when an idea or artistic endeavor evolves into something we wouldn’t expect, rather than that their ever-shifting dimensions need controlling or containing.
Days after watching it, Phantom Thread will still hypnotize, endear and befuddle you all at once – though, at least your opinions on Jonny Greenwood’s score won’t be as confused. The funny thing is, in its case, it’s impossible not to welcome those feelings. It’s constantly moving and changing in a way that, assuming you’re like me, quietly detaches you from the inhuman process of film viewing – relentlessly analyzing aesthetics, how they serve the narrative and how they connect to produce, hopefully, profound emotional responses that either touch you or make you see things in a different light – and, while it doesn’t suggest a better method, does take its merry time manipulating you like the proverbial puppet on a string. Over time, I guess I could say Phantom Thread has swept me off my feet; I just didn’t suspect attaching wires to my mind would be involved.