While I greatly admire Paul Thomas Anderson’s films (the incredibly cheeky Boogie Nights from 1997 is my favourite), I began his latest film, 2017’s Phantom Thread with a little bit of trepidation, imagining a film that yet again deals with the masculine ego, thriving on its complexities.
While Phantom Thread is indeed about a very masculine ego, that of Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis in what could be his last role), a designer of one of the great eponymous (and fictitious) British Fashion Houses of the 1950s, it is also much more than that, surprising me at every turn, even as I was enraptured by the beauty of the film and the complexity of the characters.
Nominated this year in the category for Best Picture at the 90th Academy Awards, Phantom Thread lost to Guillermo del Toro’s fantastical, lovely Shape of Water in a year where the Best Picture nominees have been incredibly strong and represented a wide range of cinema at its best, though arguably, of course, it could have been more diverse.
For the ever-critical who insist on not being able to relate to a film unless there is a person the same colour as themselves onscreen, Phantom Thread might dismay as it is a film about three very contrary and complex white people who indeed are dealing with the first world problems of love, identity, success, failure, and their place in the world.
Luckily, Anderson, being the great director that he is, is able to make the story transcendent, creating a riveting psycho-drama about what it is to love somebody but to also retain one’s dignity and sense of self in the process- a difficult balance once you understand that even the best of love involves some kind of power dynamic.
When Reynolds falls in love with a young, seemingly ordinary waitress Alma, played by the wonderfully talented Austrian newcomer Vicky Krieps, we are tricked into thinking that she is just one of a long line of ingénues that he uses as a blank canvas for his haute couture dresses. Alma however, is made up of some unusual stuff and therefore we have a film which surprises at every turn, confounding us just when we think we know what is going to happen next.
The relationships here, written by Anderson, who also shot this beautiful film, are woven with care and understanding of how contrary people can be. It is a pleasure to be baffled by every dramatic turn in a film that showcases the talents of three extraordinary actors, Day-Lewis, Krieps, and the great Leslie Manville as Cyril Woodcock, keeper of the gate of the House of Reynolds and Woodcock’s bosom confidante and sister.
This is not a film for the impatient or for those who expect a conventional love story. It is instead a work of art that yields surprises, probably with every viewing, with an extraordinary mixture of art, fashion, clashing egos, love, rivalry, and the unexpected role of wild, poisonous mushrooms. If you are in the mood for a luscious, extremely bizarre love story, this is going to be your film of the year.