‘I Heart Kylo Ren’, wrote Paul Thomas Anderson in a recent Ask Me Anything session on Twitter, ‘But I heart Rey more.’ Such musings from the director of ‘There Will be Blood’ (2007) and ‘The Master’ (2012)—two of the great movies of the 21st century—may seem unusual to some, yet Anderson’s jocular tweet parallels, however subtly, the primary modes and subjects with which his latest masterpiece, ‘Phantom Thread,’ concerns itself. For his film, conveyed primarily through the mode of farce, is preoccupied with both the power of love and the darker emotions that lurk beneath its surface—just like his feelings for Kylo Ren and Rey. This is not to say that ‘Phantom Thread’is a comedy, but rather that its consistent humour and light touch allow Anderson to explore with aplomb the volatile relationship of fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his latest muse Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps). Indeed, between the lavish costumes designed by Mark Bridges, the lush score from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, and the 35-mm cinematography produced as a ‘collaborative effort’ between Anderson and his crew of gaffers, camera operators, and lighting cameramen, ‘Phantom Thread’ resembles not so much a 1950s period piece as a post-war film produced at a similar time to Max Ophüls’s ‘Le Plaisir’ (1952) or Powell and Pressburger’s ‘The Red Shoes’ (1948), albeit captured with more advanced equipment.
But to the plot. Reynolds Woodcock is a fastidious designer of opulent dresses in 1950s London, and is not one to have his routine disturbed. Early on, his present muse and partner Johanna (Camilla Rutherford) wishes to discuss their personal affairs, only for Reynolds to shut down their conversation, declaring: ‘I simply don’t have time for confrontations.’ His sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), whose business and administrative acumen keeps the House of Woodcock enterprise afloat, notices his weariness and suggests he retreat to the country, where he soon meets (and becomes enamoured of, and makes dresses for) one Alma Elson, a European émigré recently arrived in Britain on account of the war. The central conflict of the film is propelled by the question of whether Alma will become another decorative object in Woodcock’s life, or if she can aid him to the realisation that love is more important than his craft, which is to say his art.
Alma’s character will no doubt inspire many debates among feminists. There will be those (myself included) for whom the film is a modest success in its feminism, and those for whom Alma is a product of conservative, patriarchal norms which govern virtually every mode of storytelling. However, given the historical context of the period in which the film is set, the latter claim is less likely to hold up. Though Alma’s primary goal (to show Reynolds the importance of favouring love over art) is in service to a man, it is what she does within the House of Woodcock that makes her a feminist character. There is a suggestion, not halfway through the film, that Alma is to become the new Johanna, as Reynolds complains that she’s making too much noise eating breakfast: ‘It’s as if you just rode a horse across the room.’ Yet this, suffice to say, never happens because Alma does not allow it to happen; she demonstrates her strength by refusing to become another figurine upon Woodcock’s mantelpiece. Moreover, if Anderson’s female characterisation is somewhat conservative, then he is more likely reflecting the politics of the era rather than subscribing to still-present patriarchal ideologies.
Needless to say the technical aspects of the film are crucial to ‘Phantom Thread’ as a whole. Without the unobtrusive editing of Dylan Tichenor, for example, the 130-minute film would meander and become dull—which never happens thanks to his rhythmic contrast of insert shots and long takes. Similarly, the on-location production design of Mark Tildesley, coupled with Anderson’s contrast of intimate close-ups and sinuous tracking shots around the House of Woodcock, ensure that the minute details of Woodcock’s life are as interesting to him as they are to us. Despite being, in essence, a chamber drama, ‘Phantom Thread’ never feels as if it should be anything other than a film.
Since Anderson’s film is a period drama centred around a member of the British upper class, there is an expectation that it will not attract as large an audience as, say, a more ‘relevant’ film currently in cinemas like Martin McDonagh’s ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.’ Yet where the social realism of ‘Three Billboards’ rings false in certain parts, the world in which ‘Phantom Thread’ takes place seems anything but contrived; where ‘Three Billboards’ is a standardised film whose liberal agenda is specious, ‘Phantom Thread’ is the result of individuals striving for something beyond ‘relevance,’ hollow laughs, or box-office receipts. And if this really is the last performance from the masterful Daniel Day-Lewis, we may take solace in the fact that it will not be the last film by Paul Thomas Anderson, and that it will doubtless lead to more high-profile work for the understated Vicky Krieps.
‘Phantom Thread’ will screen in the QFT from 2-15 Feb.
Director (and Writer): Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville. Rated: 15. Runtime: 130 mins.