For all his critical acclaim, Paul Thomas Anderson’s films have never been so elegant as to feel distant. They were smart, and often beautifully crafted, but always in service to their human elements. Even in The Master, his most visually beautiful and one of his most frequently disparaged movies (usually for reasons of “slow” narrative), there’s still a sense of spontaneity, watching Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell float through life mixing strange potions and being crude with women. Parts of Boogie Nights are like a funnier prequel to Step Brothers. There Will Be Blood combined some of his slowest builds with his most shrieking crescendos — like the bowling alley scene — giving the film as a whole an incredible, loud/soft Pixies dynamism and making it even better than the other great 2007 film with which it’s often compared, No Country For Old Men, in this reviewer’s opinion.
Anderson was the “arthouse director” who was never afraid of sex, violence, viscera, comedy, surrealism, or making a clear statement — that’s why he was one of my favorites. Maybe that’s why I had such a hard time with his latest, Phantom Thread, an elegant, chaste film with four or five great scenes that could’ve easily been 30 minutes shorter. There are compelling moments, but they seemed lost at sea without the grounding details that usually characterize a PTA film. If it was a departure he was going for, he succeeded.
Daniel Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a dressmaker living in post-WWII Britain, as fusty and fussy a man as his name would indicate. In the first scene, a framing device set near a fireplace, a woman — his wife? lover? partner? — describes him as “maybe the most difficult man in the world.”
In the next scene, set in the movie’s “present,” a different woman offers Woodcock — sketching dress designs at breakfast, as is his uninterruptable routine — a basket of pastries, which he declines. (Woodcock’s appetite will become a symbolic element.) She pushes a little harder and he lashes out. “I told you I wasn’t going to be eating anything snodgy* anymore.”
“…you may have told someone else,” she says, wounded. “…But you didn’t tell me.”
At its best, Phantom Thread is an evocative and darkly comic portrait of this kind of relationship dysfunction, turning a passive-aggressive argument over pastries into a climactic scene. There are a handful of these scenes, and they’re all fairly wonderful. Day-Lewis’s Woodcock is somehow both undeniably charming and an irredeemable asshole, a very particular kind of man, and there’s no greater joy in the movie than watching him get annoyed — with overly loud toast buttering, or the sound of teeth scraping against spoon.
After Woodcock’s sister, Cyril — played by Leslie Manville — intuiting the end of the relationship even before her brother, dispatches the snodgy pastries woman, Woodcock finds Alma (Vicky Krieps), his new muse, a French-speaking waitress with kind eyes. She’s willingly demure, deferring to Woodcock’s nearly every whim, but somehow more challenging. “If you’re trying to engage me in a staring contest, you will lose,” Alma tells him on their first date.
Soon Alma is living with him, modeling his dresses and engaged in a kind of cold war with Cyril over who Woodcock needs most. That Alma and Cyril come to like each other doesn’t diminish their rivalry. Such a nuanced relationship is a virtuosic feat of acting and direction, as is the fact that Cyril can play adversary without ever quite becoming a villain. Anderson has empathy for all the characters, as most great writers do.
Alma and Woodcock’s fights and mini digs are tremendous, but beyond that there’s something missing from Phantom Thread. Or maybe it’s an issue of expectation. In this past year, when the idea of the “precious artist,” who gets special treatment from society in exchange for his art, took such a hit, an opening frame that calls Woodcock “the most difficult man in the world” feels a little like a setup for some kind of comeuppance or reckoning that never really comes.
The central relationship, while beautifully acted and episodically compelling, never evolves much. The same dynamic is present from the first date, which ends in an impromptu and mildly belittling dress-fitting instead of sex, onward.
A parallel and perhaps exacerbatory problem is that Phantom Thread lacks the grounding detail that usually characterizes Anderson’s films. So many of his past movies are set in transitional time periods that straddle different epochs — the way Boogie Nights covers the time when porn went from shooting on film to video, or There Will Be Blood shows Gilded Age America on the cusp of the 20th century, or Inherent Vice (one of Anderson’s worst-reviewed movies, but one I personally love) shows ’60s optimism descending into Nixonian conspiracy, paranoia and cultism. I’m not sure what periods Phantom Thread straddles, partly because it’s a little vague about its setting. It’s after WWII. The early ’50s, I guess? Does it feel unstuck because I’m American, or because it’s Anderson’s first film set outside America?
Likewise, the central relationship, between Woodcock and Alma, is winningly dysfunctional, but it’s filled with question marks. Pardon my crudeness, but do they f*ck? I know, I know, it’s such a rude question, and no I didn’t need to see a money shot, but when the first date ends in a dress fitting and the man is a persnickety fellow whose initial response to why he’s not married is “I’m a dressmaker!” and who wears an ascot with his pajamas (great characterization through design, that), the question of whether he’s completely asexual or not feels like it needs an answer. It’s a story about a relationship where we never learn the precise nature of their relationship.
One of the most intriguing scenes is a subplot about a rich older woman and Woodcock customer named Barbara Rose (Harriet Sansom Harris) who’s marrying Dominican royalty and whom Woodcock seems to despise. She drinks too much, she’s worried about not being beautiful, and her weakness seems intolerable both to Woodcock and Alma alike. It’s an interesting dynamic, yet trying to understand the social and societal forces at work in the scene and in her character is like trying to grasp running water. This is, again, totally out of character with my experience of PTA films, and it left me a little cold.
I don’t think Phantom Thread needs “more plot” or some kind of “message” or big takeaway, as its biggest critics will almost inevitably charge. In general, plot is overrated. But the root of any good story is people and place, and after two-plus hours of Phantom Thread, I still didn’t feel like I knew either very well. Reynolds Woodcock is a fussy man in an adversarial relationship, as true in the first two minutes of the film as it is in the last two. Phantom Thread as a movie feels a little like a fancy dress shop — elegant and tasteful and beautifully crafted, but chaste and a little stuffy and you feel like you have to tiptoe around it trying not to touch anything. Strange for a filmmaker whose other films feel so lived in.
*I’m actually not sure what the word was. I thought I heard “snodgy” but I don’t know what that means.