Illustration by Yumi Wilson

Anderson triumphs with visual technique in “Phantom Thread”

By Ray Freedman

The new film from Californian writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, “Phantom Thread,” marks a departure for the filmmaker. His previous films, “There Will Be Blood,” “Boogie Nights” and “The Master,” to name a few, are known for their grand scope, whereas this film mostly takes place in a single house.

Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Reynolds Woodcock, a high-class couturier who lives with his sister, Cyril. Played by a stoic Lesley Manville, Cyril runs the business and gives Reynolds the space he needs to simply focus on his craft while being a pervasive presence, knowing everyone and everything that comes in and out of the house. It is clear from the beginning that this is the way things have been for a while, and any romantic partner of Reynolds must submit to this dynamic. That is, until Alma shows up.

Although the film takes place in the world of fashion and the house of Woodcock, “Phantom Thread” is Alma’s film. Played by Vicky Krieps, Alma is the emotional center who carries the story as she shifts Reynold’s life into a new season. Upon meeting Reynolds on one of his weekend trips, the two quickly fall for each other. Krieps is absolutely mesmerizing in the role as she gracefully showcases her ability to go toe-to-toe with Daniel Day Lewis, often stealing the scene. In an interview with Rolling Stone, the director admitted that he auditioned many star actresses, but Krieps was the only one who could say, “I love you and you are too dumb to see how much I love you and what I got to give you and I am not going anywhere until I make you realize it,” with a single look.

As much as it is a love story, “Phantom Thread” meditates on all the turbulences that go along with falling in love. Investing so much in a romantic partner shakes up your life. For Reynolds, everything from his work regiment to his familial relationships begin to shift  around his relationship with Alma. Likewise, Alma finds herself settled in a domestic life where she struggles to hold on to her independence and freedom. The film dances itself into a progression of brokenness. Alma and Reynolds keep rediscovering what it is that keeps them together. This is something that all long-term couples must deal with: the constant ebb and flow of dynamics.

What makes “Phantom Thread” bite is its deliciously frustrating suspense. As Alma pours tea for Reynolds she’ll raise her arm up just enough to make the water sound unnecessarily loud, only to remind Reynolds of her presence. Scenes are given ample time and space to accentuate the most nuanced movements, glances and silences. There are moments where the suspense builds so much that the audience truly does not know what these lovers are capable of doing to each other.

The direction shows Anderson at his most restrained. The camera is mostly still, and Anderson allows the light of the set to sink in every shot. Interestingly, there is no credited Director of Photography on the film. Anderson collaborated with his camera operators, lighters and gaffers to create images that beautifully exhibit the costuming and sets, without being flashy.  The specific and stunning use of color and light creates a truly authentic sense of the ’50s. All the filmmaking elements conspire together to make a delightfully intimate and claustrophobic portrait.  

The element that shines most, though, is Jonny Greenwood’s score. The Radiohead guitarist has composed the music for Anderson’s last four films, and this newest one easily goes down as one of the greatest soundtracks ever. Like the film, it is romantic but painful, vibrant but cold. Greenwood deservingly was nominated for his first Academy Award this past week, and “Phantom Thread” earned six nominations overall. To me, it is one of the best films of recent years.

“Phantom Thread” is Day-Lewis’ final film. After he wrapped shooting he released a statement announcing his retirement from acting. We can only speculate as to why he did this, but the performance feels personal. The departure for the director marks a homecoming for the actor. The film was made in his hometown and the performance features the actor’s most natural voice. No matter the story, the film deserves all the acclaim it can get, and Anderson has further canonized himself as the most admirable director working today.

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