Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread” (2017)

As one of the most acclaimed artistic voices in contemporary filmmaking, director Paul Thomas Anderson enjoys a level of prestige that’s virtually unmatched by others of his generation.  He’s gotten to this level by refusing to be anything other than himself: an idiosyncratic kid from southern California’s San Fernando Valley with eccentric artistic tastes and an unabiding compassion for flawed characters.  Having already made no less than two of the most cherished pictures of the 1990’s — BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997) and MAGNOLIA (1999), Anderson had seemingly reached an altogether different zenith starting with 2007’s THERE WILL BE BLOOD.  This film marked a titanic evolution in his artistry, sparked by its intense meditation on the nature of power & ambition as perverted by a ruthless oil tycoon.  2012’s THE MASTER fanned the flames with a similarly-intense exploration filtered through the prism of a Scientology-adjacent cult.  Anderson’s subsequent picture, INHERENT VICE (2014), stumbled slightly in terms of its reception, but has nevertheless managed to endure in our collective cinematic memory thanks to its stoner dream logic.  

Most directors who reach this level of artistic excellence are all too happy to stagnate— it’s safer and easier to go with what’s been working, even if it does tend to yield diminishing returns.  Anderson, however, distinguishes himself yet again, having subsequently embarked on a period of intense personal experimentation with several short-form music videos and the verite-style documentary JUNUN (2015).  These projects would serve to refresh his artistic perspective, offering him the opportunity to experiment with new techniques in a pared-down environment.  Anderson is — if nothing else — a master of self-reinvention, and much like his experimentation with short-form slapstick comedy in the early 2000’s was followed by THERE WILL BE BLOOD’s staggering creative revelations, this new period of growth was setting the stage for yet another showcase of his artistic ascent.  Of course, he would need the right idea, which he found one day while laid up sick in bed and, in his vulnerable state, struck by the tenderness and care evidenced by his wife, actress Maya Rudolph (1).  He found he could plant this tiny seed of emotion into his developing interest in male fashion designers— specifically Cristobal Balenciaga of Spain, whose strict, “monastic” approach to his work/life balance provided the template for Anderson’s emerging concept about a similar figure dressing royalty and socialites in 1950’s London (1).  


The resulting film, 2017’s PHANTOM THREAD, would prove unlike anything Anderson has ever made before; its oblique narrative about the erratic romance between a powerful man and his seemingly-demure wife sublimely coinciding with the zeitgeist of the #TimesUp movement and its unveiling of toxic power structures.  The film marks something of a ten-year reunion between Anderson and his THERE WILL BE BLOOD star, Daniel Day-Lewis, building upon the intimacy of their previous collaboration to the point that Day-Lewis actively collaborated with Anderson on PHANTOM THREAD’s screenplay (indeed, the director has conceded in interviews that Day-Lewis should have received some sort of co-writing credit (1)).  The towering nature of Day-Lewis’ performance is to be expected, but his character of the renowned English dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock surprises us at every juncture.  By turns sweet and ferocious, Woodcock’s urbane sophistication & disarming charm floats atop a churning, roiling brew of discipline, ruthlessness, and tar-black venom. Molded in the template of THERE WILL BE BLOOD’s Daniel Plainview or THE MASTER’s Lancaster Dodd, the conceited titans portrayed in his previous meditations on power, Reynolds Woodcock has chosen to marry himself to his work.  Every waking minute that isn’t spent eating is spent on designing his elegant dresses— an obsession that Day-Lewis imbues with his signature authenticity and studied intensity, thanks to a year of apprenticeship under New York City Ballet’s head costume designer, Marc Happel (1).  His elegant, impeccably-dressed urbanity fuels this highly-disciplined lifestyle, drawing a steady parade of short-term female companions that are so easily cast aside like unwanted leftovers.

Indeed, the only woman that’s managed to stay close to Woodcock is his sister Cyril, played by Lesley Manville in an Academy Award-nominated performance overflowing with icy pragmatism.  She runs the day-to-day operations of House of Woodcock, allowing Reynolds the freedom to focus on the creative; as such, the two are inseparable, never missing a meal together (much to the chagrin of his short-lived lovers).  Woodcock’s orderly, monastic life is soon upturned by a chance meeting with a waitress at a small cafe in the English countryside. This demure and quiet woman is named Alma, but underneath her sweet small-town surface lies a fierce, strong-willed spirit that stands in stark contrast to any love interest that Woodcock’s ever encountered.  French actress Vicky Krieps excels in the role, puncturing holes in Woodcock’s ordered lifestyle as she infiltrates deeper into the House of Woodcock’s operation. Their resulting chemistry is unlike any love story we’ve ever seen— one where affection is shown not by kissing or hugging, but by exertions of power. Woodcock’s hope is that Alma will eventually fit neatly into his rigidly-defined lifestyle, but she refuses to yield to his egomaniacal expectations.  Instead, she strips him down so that she may build him back up better than before. She does this by lacing his food with the powder from a poisonous mushroom— just enough to knock him flat on his back with a nasty fever for a couple days, at which point she can exert her own power by nursing him back to health. It’s an admittedly bizarre approach, to be sure, but it’s also a uniquely compelling and perversely beautiful conceit that speaks to the unmatched idiosyncrasy of Anderson’s storytelling.

With a production budget of $35 million, PHANTOM THREAD distinguishes itself as one of the most expensive films that Anderson has ever made — second only to 1999’s MAGNOLIA (1).  This relatively-lavish spread of resources, furnished by Focus Features and Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures, enables him to realize an elegant vision of mid century European class and sophistication without losing his off-kilter edge.  Anderson employs the classical conceits of old-fashioned filmmaking to reinforce this vision, and in the process creates an economy of craft that’s profoundly subtle and uniquely his.  As one can tell in the organic veneer of grain present throughout (especially in close-up shots that linger on the texture of various fabrics) PHANTOM THREAD was shot on 35mm film, but this — nor Anderson’s continued insistence on celluloid over digital in his theatrical work — is not what distinguishes the film’s cinematography.  Having operated the camera himself on his recent music videos and JUNUN, Anderson had been slowly improving his technical expertise as a cinematographer; when longtime collaborator Robert Elswit proved unavailable to return for PHANTOM THREAD (apparently a result of a rapidly deteriorating professional relationship), he felt his experience was sufficient enough to take on camera duties here as well.  As such, PHANTOM THREAD doesn’t have an officially credited cinematographer.  Anderson simply absorbs those responsibilities into his job description as a director, relying on the wisdom of his gaffers and camera operators (as well as his own intimate knowledge of the format) to get him the results he wants (1).

Said results are nothing short of mesmerizing, with Anderson’s melodramatic rendering of color and light recalling the vivid aesthetic of midcentury directors like Douglas Sirk or Alfred Hitchcock.  Production designer Mark Tildesley assists Anderson’s realization of 1950’s-era London as a world of cold hues, creamy neutrals, and the occasional punch of warmth. This heavily restricted color palette reflects the regimented order and discipline of the House of Woodcock, further reinforced by the pristine, anonymizing white coats his employees wear.  Indeed, Woodcock’s vibrant dresses are the only source of saturated color, and rightfully so— PHANTOM THREAD’s somber color conceits better allow costume designer Mark Bridges’ Oscar-winning work to leap off the screen with breathtaking ferocity.  The 1.85:1 frame gives Anderson plenty of room to fashion his characteristically-compelling compositions: a beautiful wide shot of Woodcock designing a dress for Alma by the light of the moon comes immediately to mind, as does an extended tracking shot that follows Woodcock through a raucous, labyrinthine New Year’s Eve party as he searches for her amidst the crowd.  Even the close-ups possess a resonance that eludes the work of Anderson’s contemporaries, imbued with a profound magnetism by virtue of his framing of faces in the style of portraiture. Just as the appearance of Alma poses a disruptive force upon Woodcock’s regimented lifestyle, so too does Anderson subvert the elegance of his classical camerawork with the expressionistic techniques of New Hollywood filmmaking: BARRY LYNDON-esque slow zooms, the breaking of the fourth wall, and the occasional handheld shot (its relative scarcity making certain scenes like Woodcock’s woozy, post-poisoning collapse all the more visceral).

Anderson’s public-facing modesty over his supposed inexperience as a cameraman belies his profound grasp of film’s technical aspects.  Indeed, it’s hard to think of any other word than “impeccable” when it comes to describing PHANTOM THREAD’s sterling visual presentation.  As his artistry has matured, Anderson has increasingly shown the kind of comprehensive mastery of the medium exhibited by consummate filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick.  Anderson’s ability to speak the language of key technical departments facilitates strong relationships with recurring collaborators like editor Dylan Tichenor and his producing partners JoAnne Sellar and Daniel Lupi.  PHANTOM THREAD also continues Anderson’s fruitful partnership with composer and Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, who’s Oscar-nominated work here stands in a class entirely above his previous compositions for the director.  The score lends an elegant romanticism to Anderson’s lush images, employing a classy, piano-based theme that reinforces the urbane sophistication of Woodcock’s world. A handful of sub-themes grow and evolve along with the film’s central romance, gradually adding complex string orchestrations aside from other elements.  This approach culminates in the scene where Alma mixes poison mushrooms into Woodcock’s dinner, with a dramatic, bombastic string arrangement instantly recalling BARRY LYNDON’s usage of Handel’s “Sarabande”— and further reinforcing the Kubrickian atmosphere that Anderson has managed to conjure around the entirety of PHANTOM THREAD.  Several piano renditions of torch songs and jazz standards like “My Foolish Heart” populate the soundtrack, further capturing the distinct time period and contained lifestyles on display.

PHANTOM THREAD roughly follows the thematic template that Anderson fashioned with predecessors like THERE WILL BE BLOOD and THE MASTER, in that the film’s narrative paints a towering portrait of a powerful, complicated, and eccentric man.  Reynolds Woodcock is the natural successor to figures like Daniel Plainview and Lancaster Dodd, each a titan of his own industry, cutting mythic silhouettes that loom over their respective eras.  One could discern these anti-heroes as emblematic of a certain kind of toxic masculinity— one that leverages power and influence in service only to ego, greed, and vanity. They are charismatic in the manipulative manner that these types of people usually are, blessed with a dense, undeniable gravity that pulls other people into their orbit.  Anderson’s characters are guilty pleasures, made particularly attractive by dint of their crackling wit and biting turns of phrase. His gift for writing idiosyncratic and endlessly-quotable dialogue molds figures like Plainview, Dodd — and now, Woodcock — as eminently-watchable, silver-tongued serpents. This is especially true of Woodcock in particular, his ridiculous name a deliberate decision made by his mischievous creator to perpetually torpedo the dressmaker’s practiced self-seriousness.  He’s always ready with a quip as darkly comedic as it is poison-tipped. Day-Lewis’ brilliance as an actor is particularly valuable in this regard, giving him an effortless ability to confidently deliver impossible, bizarre lines like “Are you a secret agent here to kill me? Show me your gun!” or “I’m admiring my own gallantry for eating it the way you prepared it”.

Where Woodcock stands apart from figures like Plainview and Dodd is in the fact that he has a companion who can match him blow for blow.  Plainview had no such companion to speak of, even giving up his own adopted son in the pursuit of profit. Dodd’s wife was strong in her own quiet way, preferring instead to work in the shadows and bolster her power by reinforcing her husband’s with an almost-Machiavellian calculation.  PHANTOM THREAD’s Alma possesses a fundamental independence all her own; a resolute defiance that quickly brings Woodcock to heel.  The old saying goes: “behind every great man is a great woman”, but Alma refuses to be a passive agent in Woodcock’s growth.  She has a variety of qualities with which to check Woodcock’s aggression, but — unlike the male protagonists of Anderson’s power portraits — yelling and screaming are not amongst them. She deploys her compassion strategically, quickly making herself indispensable.  Anderson’s decision to frame the narrative from Alma’s point of view allows the audience to more-fully experience her complex inner life, while at the same time revealing more of the personal sensitivity to the female experience that allows him to craft compelling, multidimensional women characters.  Indeed, Alma stands as the latest (and perhaps most vivid) figure in a long procession of memorable heroines throughout the director’s filmography.

With the exception of HARD EIGHT and its Reno setting, nearly all of Anderson’s films have taken place in his native California.  PHANTOM THREAD’s British backdrop marks a significant departure from Anderson’s norm— a development that seems to have sparked a notable shift forward in his artistic evolution.  The experience of watching PHANTOM THREAD, even after having seen it multiple times, is a breathtaking one.  There’s a unique aura that envelopes the film, as if it has already attained the silver glow of classic cinema.  This sheen blinds one from the awareness that it didn’t make very much money at the box office; frankly, its financial performance is an irrelevant footnote in light of Anderson’s monumental artistic achievement.  The word “masterpiece” is thrown around far too often (I’m likely guilty of some misuse myself), but PHANTOM THREAD most certainly qualifies as one when the experience of watching it evokes the same awe and admiration as a timeless film that’s been around for generations.  Unlike many masterpieces of its ilk, however, PHANTOM THREAD would enjoy the luxury of being celebrated in its own time; numerous critics put the film at or near the top of their annual year-end lists, culminating in the aforementioned Oscar nominations for Day-Lewis’ and Manville’s performances and Greenwood’s score, alongside high-profile nods for Best Picture and Best Director (Anderson’s second).  While Best Costume Design was the only one of its nominations to ultimately win a gold statue, PHANTOM THREAD nevertheless continues to accumulate an artistic capital or pedigree far more valuable than any award.  

It’s hard to dismiss as mere coincidence that Anderson’s friend and artistic hero Jonathan Demme passed away on the day that PHANTOM THREAD wrapped principal photography (1); Anderson’s own aesthetic evolution had long since superseded Demme’s stylistic influence (once so palpable in early works like BOOGIE NIGHTS), but the latter‘s physical passing in this context feels like a cosmic, posthumous blessing for the former’s artistic development to ascend towards a higher level all his own.  People often invoke Anderson’s name when citing the best living directors, and PHANTOM THREAD serves only to escalate the validity of their claims.  With each successive film, Anderson makes it painfully apparent that his talents are of the kind that only comes around once in a lifetime.  His elegant eccentricity has inspired a generation of emerging filmmakers to follow their own weirdness, ensuring the continued vitality of cinema’s artistic potential.  Anderson’s artistic future remains as unpredictable as the character of his work, but if PHANTOM THREAD is any indication of what might lie in store for his audience, than said future will be utterly unlike anything we’ve seen before.

PHANTOM THREAD is currently available on 4K Ultra High Definition Blu Ray via Universal


Produced by: Megan Ellison, JoAnne Sellar, Daniel Lupi

Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Director of Photography: Paul Thomas Anderson (uncredited)

Production Designer: Mark Tildesley

Costume Designer: Mark Bridges

Edited by: Dylan Tichenor

Music by: Jonny Greenwood


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