No American filmmaker is more of an artist than Paul Thomas Anderson. In the eight films Anderson has directed over the past 20 years, he has shown an original touch that verges, at times, on actual bravado.
Think of “Boogie Nights,” an epic look at one man’s striving for success in – of all things – the porn industry. Or “Magnolia,” Anderson’s contemplation of the human experience that climaxes biblically with a literal rain of frogs. Or his masterpiece “There Will Be Blood,” in which the protagonist – Daniel Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview – is a resolutely self-centered bastion of pure greed.
And now we have “Phantom Thread,” a film that was recently nominated for six Academy Awards, including three of the most prestigious: Best Picture, Best Actor – again for Day-Lewis – and Best Director. All this despite, typical of Anderson, the film’s being something that doesn’t fit easily into anyone’s idea of what a mainstream movie should be.
To be clear, there is little about “Phantom Thread” that is standard.
Set in 1950s London, when England is still rebuilding from the war and not quite ready for the coming “chic” fashions of Carnaby Street, “Phantom Thread” focuses on Reynolds Woodcock, a dressmaker who has long clothed the British upper classes, those with money, those of nobility and even the occasional member of royalty.
When we first meet Reynolds, he is in the process of disposing of his latest muse, a woman who wants to be more than a mere puppet. He leaves the actual act of disposal to his sister, Cyril (played by Lesley Manville), who is both his manager and his enabler.
Then Alma (Vicky Krieps) enters the scene. A gangly waitress in a sea-side restaurant, Alma attracts Reynolds’ attention – and just that quick she becomes his … what? Companion? Newest in a long line of muses? Just another puppet to be used and then discarded?
It isn’t long before we understand that Alma is something different. And while she and Reynolds begin to play out his standard scenario – she wanting more, he growing tired of anyone who demands what he refuses to give – “Phantom Thread” leaves the realm of, say, Douglas Sirk and enters that of Alfred Hitchcock.
To say more would be cheating. In any event, I’m not sure it would illuminate Anderson’s intent. As it is, that intent – in fact the very concept behind “Phantom Thread” – is likely to arouse a different reaction in each person who sees it.
See it, though, you should. Day-Lewis has said this will be his final performance. And even if that isn’t true, it is some of the finest work done by an actor known for immersing himself in the characters he plays. Krieps and Manville, the latter of whom has been nominated for Best Supporting Actress, are very nearly his match.
But the star, as always in an Anderson movie, is the writer-director himself. As “Phantom Thread” progresses, Anderson keeps us off-balance, never quite explaining what each character is up to as he or she moves from one scene to the next.
Take the first time Reynolds brings Alma to his country house: Initially, she is flattered and her face shows the simple joy of someone attracting a potential lover’s attention. But as he begins taking her measurements, it become clear something else is going on. And when Cyril enters the room, unannounced, Alma’s expression changes, reflecting her – and our – confusion as to what is happening.
Anderson, who doubles as his own cinematographer, keeps his camera moving. It works almost as its own character, documenting equally well the claustrophobic interior of Reynolds’ London house/studio/workshop as well as those few moments of freedom when Reynolds races through the countryside in his sports car.
And just to underscore everything else, Johnny Greenwood’s musical score – also Oscar-nominated – affects a mood that often seems to clash with the storyline that “Phantom Thread” is conveying. Anderson, as he continually reminds us, is a master of discordance.
The upshot is this: Even when you walk out of a theater wondering what it is you’ve just seen, Paul Thomas Anderson does his best to make sure you understand that what you’ve seen is something extraordinary.