With only eight major motion pictures under his belt, Paul Thomas Anderson added his name to the shortlist of the greatest filmmakers of all time. With his most recent release, he has sewn his name into the canvas of cinematic history.
Over the course of his 22-year career, Anderson has never made a film that wasn’t great. He’s made a habit of directing masterpieces such as “Boogie Nights,” “The Master” and “There Will Be Blood.” His cinematic legacy has expanded with his most recent film “Phantom Thread.”
Anderson’s eighth film is a claustrophobic look into the life of fictional 1950s London dressmaker, Reynolds Woodcock. Woodcock is played by Daniel Day-Lewis in what he says will be his final film performance.
Woodcock has a polished and refined daily routine. He wakes up, clips his nose hairs and eats breakfast as he draws out designs for dresses. God forbid anyone interrupts his process while eating breakfast.
In one of the film’s opening scenes, Woodcock is eating breakfast with his sister Cyril, who is potrayed by Lesley Manville in a role that calls to mind Mrs. Danvers from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 gothic drama Rebecca. Then, a young woman who Woodcock saw as an inspiration for his work named Johanna (Camilla Rutherford) offers him a glazed swiss bun. He denies the offer and makes it known he no longer craves them. With this rejection, he also makes it known that he no longer craves the need for Johanna’s presence. It was with that breakfast altercation that Johanna was discarded as a muse for Woodcock.
Johanna is soon replaced by Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress Woodcock meets in a café diner at breakfast. He first sees her clumsily walk into a table as she carries a tray of food. Woodcock is instantly infatuated with her as a new muse, a canvas on which he can create art.
Krieps’ performance as Alma makes the movie. She holds her own against the likes of the cruel Cyril and the intense presence of Woodcock. Her performance stands on the same level as her co-stars’ Oscar-nominated performances. Her ability to hold her own against the egotistical Woodcock — via Day-Lewis’s method acting — is both remarkable and crucial to the film. With the gender discrimination displayed in the film, the female lead needed to be performing at the same high caliber of those around her. Otherwise, Phantom Thread could have easily been a disaster.
Anderson’s casting decisions are one of his greatest attributes. This is the second time he’s perfectly selected the ideal counterpart to go nose-to-nose with Day-Lewis. The first time was with Paul Dano staring down Day-Lewis’s iconic performance as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. Krieps does the same here with Woodcock. Like Dano’s Eli Sunday, Alma starts the film out fairly reserved and progressively gains power and occasionally dominates the screen.
Alma’s scene-stealing is especially surprising because “Phantom Thread” seems specifically fitted to showcase Day-Lewis. In the same way as Woodcock manufactures dresses to amplify the beauty of his models.
Day-Lewis was a major collaborator of Anderson’s in the process of creating the character of Woodcock. And it shows. “Phantom Thread” seems to be commentating on how the incessant, exhaustive demands of an artist take a toll on the people around them. In the film, Woodcock is a dominating force who is completely consumed with his work. While in real life, Day-Lewis is renowned for his intense method acting in which he never breaks character on set.
If Day-Lewis stays true to his word and never acts again, he couldn’t have picked a better film to go out on. Throughout his career, Day-Lewis has had a propensity to overact. That only plays into Woodcock’s character as an immature and fussy man-child. While this is a performance of self-reflection, Day-Lewis still manages to deliver his lines with just the right amount of humor. Much like he did as Plainview in “There Will Be Blood”. What really separates this role from his others, is how it doesn’t outshine the rest of the movie. Woodcock’s mannerisms are always on point and exquisite, but he isn’t the star of the film.
Jonny Greenwood’s Oscar-nominated score, on the other hand, is the centerpiece of “Phantom Thread.” It’s a luscious orchestral beast with swirling sounds to complement everything that occurs in the film, whether it’s an argument at dinner, or a person climbing a spiral staircase. The score doesn’t just add atmosphere to the film, it is key to understanding the movie. Something odd happens within the relationship between Woodcock and Alma that isn’t explicitly spoken about until the very last scene of the film. Greenwood’s score throughout the film simultaneously adds an emotional undercurrent to routine scenes of the couple’s life. The music nudges at the audience, making us aware of something else within their relationship.
The unconventionality of the romance between Woodcock and Alma calls back to Anderson’s other love story, “Punch-Drunk Love.” In both films, the bizarreness is sublimated under the movie’s beautiful music for the majority of the picture until the melodies are synced up with the souls of the characters. After hearing the songs of these characters throughout the film, it isn’t until they are played at the end that it is revealed how the characters love each other in the oddest and perverse way possible.
Anderson throws a curveball in the finale of “Phantom Thread” by upending expectations of what the audience thinks will happen with the movie’s central relationship. The film masterfully crafts tension by pitting people’s expectations of the film against the reality of the film.
This is subtly conveyed in the film on the first date between Alma and Woodcock. Woodcock talks about how he hides secret messages in the clothes he makes. He says, “You can sew almost anything into the canvas of a coat.”
Anderson treats his films like Woodcock treats his coats and dresses. His early work has several threads of Robert Altman and Jonathan Demme sewn within them. “Phantom Thread” has more of the Alfred Hitchcock fabric within it.
But Anderson is hardly derivative. He has an auteur’s eye and an auteur’s needle. With “Phantom Thread,” Anderson pays homage to the greats, but in the process, he has cemented his status as one of them.
Contact CU Independent Arts Writer Joseph Mason at Joseph.Mason@colorado.edu.