‘Phantom Thread’: on the trials of loving an artist
This review of Phantom Thread was co-written with Maria Hafez. Hafez is a senior in English Literature at the American University of Beirut. She dabbles in European cinema and has attended a summer course on Italian cinema in Milan. She hopes to pursue a career in film. Her favorite directors include Wes Anderson, Xavier Dolan, Federico Fellini, and Jean-Luc Godard.
For decades, Daniel Day-Lewis has dazzled the screen with his award-winning performances in films such as There Will Be Blood, My Left Foot, and Lincoln. And when he announced his retirement last summer, the three-time Oscar winner sent shockwaves through the industry and his long-time fans, only adding to the hype of what had then officially become the actor’s swan song: Phantom Thread, directed by fellow cinema great Paul Thomas Anderson (PTA).
Anderson’s eighth film is set in London during the 1950s and holds Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a renowned dressmaker, as its difficult-to-handle protagonist. Woodcock falls in love with a waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps) from the coast over a copious order of breakfast and takes her to his enormous London estate to become his muse and lover. As their relationship repeatedly flourishes and perishes throughout the film, Alma suffers the consequences of falling for an artist.
Phantom Thread’s aesthetics are juxtaposed with the film’s narrative. While the film flows with delicacy, every shot looking like a painting in and of itself thanks to Mark Bridges’s costume design, Anderson’s picturesque world is ridden with an all-consuming, toxic love affair. The director affords his audience a breathtaking depiction of emotional struggle free from grand gestures of affection, long kisses, or testaments to love. Because of this, the unhealthy relationship is not romanticized.
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To categorize Phantom Thread as a mere love story would strip the film of its complexity. It is much more than that: it is the story of two flawed human beings who constantly try to control and dominate each other. In fact, the extent to which these characters go to in order to keep each other close is sometimes disturbing. They mutually intoxicate each other: he manipulates her emotionally, she poisons him physically.
This paradox of an abusive relationship in an elegant film is in part a consequence of the leads’ powerfully restrained performances. Daniel Day-Lewis delivers a performance that is simple in its delivery of complexity. A smile, a look, a frown is enough to give the character away. He does a brilliant job at painting a portrait of an artist too often troubled by his own genius. More so, Lewis’s Reynolds is a boy and a man, desperately seeking a love as pure as a mother’s (or a mother, one would venture). It is a performance layered with emotion and physicality, one that unquestionably reaffirms his status as one of cinema’s finest — a talent that will be sorely missed.
To match Lewis in caliber is no easy feat, but Vicky Krieps stunningly holds her own in a performance that is easily one of the best of the year, and one that was deserving of a Best Actress nod. As opposed to Woodcock, Alma’s story is kept from the audience, but her strong personality quickly asserts itself. The character masterfully develops from an apparently submissive and innocent foreigner to a possessive and determined woman willing to do anything to have her way. Still, her eyes are filled with tenderness and her smile is sincere. Krieps makes the audience stand behind Alma’s twisted actions. While Woodcock’s manipulation is explicit — a part of his assertive and dominant personality — Alma’s manipulation is implicit, vengeful, and loving.
The dynamic between Alma and Reynolds reaches its climax in a tremendously choreographed dinner sequence that upsets the power dynamic between the two lead characters, and reveals tendencies in both that are darker and more twisted than initially perceived.
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Phantom Thread is driven by its near perfect narrative structure (held together by a phenomenal score from long time PTA collaborator Jonny Greenwood). And this is most apparent in the shift in Lesley Manville’s character, Cyril, sister to Reynolds and the only person able to command him through and through. Her change in attitude towards Alma from indifference to affection to support perfectly mirrors the momentum and strength Alma gains as a characters as she etches her own threads in the Woodstock household. And she fulfills her role in bringing that to life with striking power, earning her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress (though I personally would have opted for Holly Hunter in The Big Sick instead).
This all comes together in a fantastic film from Anderson, whose direction was rightfully recognized in awards circuits. It is an exciting beginning for Krieps’s career in Hollywood, and a wonderful send-off to an actor whose performances have claimed our hearts time and again. Phantom Thread joins a growing list of phenomenal cinema that has thrilled audiences in 2017, but will undoubtedly find itself high up on many favorites lists, including our own.