How to go about reviewing Phantom Thread? Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is as uncategorisable as they come, twisting the period romance into a heavy metal tour-de-force that only begins to rev up its electric guitars once the curtains close. It’s not the BDSM flick that many supposed following its enigmatic trailer, but it also kind of is? As racey as it is lacey, it’s PTA’s most quietly subversive drama yet - and one of his finest. But, my, is it difficult to talk about.
We begin with Reynolds Woodcock, blatant sexual innuendo and all, and his dismissal of one of his muses. He dresses them up fancy, tires of them, and sends them away - why should Alma, an unassuming waitress who stumbles into Woodcock’s life after a bit of breakfast foreplay, be any different?
And, for a while, she’s not. They bicker by breakfast and gush over dresses by night - a monotony sets in, and under the steady support of Woodcock’s sister, Cyril, Alma looks like she’s on her way out.
To say any more of the narrative would spoil the magic of Phantom Thread - quite literal magic too, I might add (the title doesn’t just refer to the subconscious muscle movement of dress-sewers). This is a film reminiscent of The Duke of Burgundy (without blatant BDSM or moths), or The Beguiled if it were any good; steeped in a fairytale atmosphere with power dynamics shifting and turning. It’s a film as assured and rich as Woodcock, and as finely-woven as one of his dresses.
And, most surprising of all, it’s funny. PTA’s drop-off in tone from Punch-Drunk Love to There Will Be Blood (one features Adam Sandler tap dancing in a supermarket, the other features Daniel Day-Lewis mourning his son’s newfound deafness) may have made his audience suspect he’d forgotten his funny bones, but if Inherent Vice didn’t convince you, maybe Phantom Thread will. From Lesley Manville’s deadpan delivery as Cyril to Woodcock’s rant on the term ‘chic’, this is a period drama unafraid to, you know, have fun once in a while. Gloriously, Woodcock mutters that he hates confrontation over breakfast at the start of the film; the inevitable occurs, and now every breakfast involves confrontation.
Shot with PTA’s signature fuzz - a cloak of mist that reels the film to the 50s - there’s an air of authenticity that offsets a romance where everyone is playing a role. Alma accuses Woodcock of playing a game with her; it’s PTA that’s playing a game with us.
Visual storytelling, is, of course, at its finest here: the camera’s gaze keeps in line with Woodcock’s own, Alma and Cyril talk in rhythm with one another until Alma gets ahead of her, Woodcock wades through a sea of New Year’s Eve chaos, drawn to Alma like a moth to a flame. It’s glorious stuff, and Daniel Day-Lewis and *especially* Vicky Krieps sell it all. It may be Day-Lewis’ supposed last film ( what a way to bow out), but it’s Krieps that truly astounds here, wearing a dress of frailty before stripping it off and duping her predator. If Day-Lewis represents toxic masculinity and Krieps the unfortunate victim, PTA is quick to subvert every expectation
there could possibly be. Perhaps ‘Phantom Thread’ refers to a third meaning - a latent plot strand that isn’t shown, but heavily implied. Watch it and maybe you’ll see what I mean.
With a finale that sends reverberations over the preceding runtime, one viewing of Phantom Thread simply isn’t enough. It’s a gorgeous faux-period piece that trades Inherent Vice’ s LA haze for London splendour, and I can’t wait to make more headway into its commentary on relationship dynamics, desire and power roles. And in terms of PTA’s filmography, it’s his most assured yet - perhaps not as thematically dense as his greatest hits, but it’s tricksy, swooning, and not afraid to get mystical (or Shyamalan-esque). As far as Phantom Thread is concerned, there’s not mushroom for improvement.