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The Edge of Madness in Anderson’s Phantom Thread

Take five people to see Phantom Thread and you’re likely to get five wildly different responses. Is it a movie about chauvinism reaching its ludicrously hilarious conclusion? About a clever rebellion by a woman taming a maniacal dressmaker two steps from the looney bin? Or is it a think-piece about the mind of an unstable artist on the verge of spinning completely into sociopathy? Like Paul Thomas Anderson’s best films, Phantom Thread often feels like multiple stories are being fleshed out at once, a hypnotic labyrinth that sprinkles in humor and social commentary in unexpected ways and never pauses to consider what the audience wants to see next. It’s also an incredible vehicle for the talents of Vicky Krieps, who is never one-upped despite being opposite another intense and intricate performance by Daniel Day-Lewis. Guaranteed to send casual moviegoers to the exits frustrated and/or angry, Phantom Thread is a daring final film role for Day-Lewis (allegedly) and further proof that Anderson is one of a kind in American cinema.

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Vicky Krieps drinks Day-Lewis’ milkshake.

At first glance on paper, Phantom Thread must have seemed just about unmakeable, which could be why Krieps initially thought it was a student film when she first laid eyes upon the screenplay. It revolves around a hilariously fickle and temperamental London dressmaker whose genius is so fragile that he can’t even abide any sound at all at the breakfast table, or any distractions whatsoever. Managed by a woman he calls his “old so-and-so” (Lesley Manville), Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) is irony personified, a man who believes he alone can create the beauty of a woman out of fabric – apparently without realizing what the woman is bringing to the table.

Enter Alma (Krieps), a waitress who Woodcock believes will be the perfect model to stand there and do exactly what he says. At one point, he (wrongly) states that she has no breasts but that he’s contemplating giving her some with the perfect dress, exposing his own gargantuan hubris and divine delusions. Though Woodcock thinks this is all perfectly natural, he also appears to be only a step or two from Hannibal Lecter, and so Alma and the audience dive in to see just how far his depravity goes.

What he didn’t count on was Alma, who at first seems to be a perfectly disposable muse, but is soon challenging Woodcock’s world and creating a rivalry that he isn’t prepared for. By playing by his rules – and creating a few of her own – Alma begins to expose the insanity of his dressmaking rituals and the movie spills into a droll little comedy about a profoundly narcissistic drama king having his universe tinkered with.

Like with some of the best material in There Will Be Blood and The Master, Anderson is again channeling Kubrick, another American director who found a reflection in English culture and made some of his best films across the Atlantic. In one scene, we’re out in the middle of the English countryside at night, and we could just as easily be playing “hogs of the road” along with Alex DeLarge. More than just an allusion to A Clockwork Orange, we understand that we’re embarking on a story of madness driven by a sociopath. As with all great directors borrowing material, the point isn’t to reference other films just for the hell of it; Anderson is making connections and correlations that add to the film.

Butphantom-thread-3 the social commentary, dry-as-a-bone humor, and collection of intricate natural lighting runs more  in step with Kubrick’s underpraised masterpiece Barry Lyndon. Just like in Lyndon, characters are conscientiously participating in a slow-moving painting in which their role in a rigid society is deathly serious, but also so absurd that a darkly funny undercurrent drips from every scene. It’s all so ridiculous, such a desperate attempt at presenting perfection, that it’s impossible to take seriously, and much of the dialog feels like a parody of a lesser work. While everyone floats around like they’re hypnotized into a strange ritual, Alma gets the freedom to recognize the joke and thoroughly enjoys tinkering with Woodcock’s universe. We even get a scene that feels right from The Shining, pointing out that Alma has quite a bit in common with Wendy’s plight at the Overlook Hotel but also her capacity to fight back.

And of course, in what could turn out to be his final performance, Day-Lewis nails another remarkable oddball and walks off the set with a role that couldn’t be further from Hollywood. Thanks to knockout turns from Krieps and Manville, however, Day-Lewis is certainly not the only memorable performer on display. Though Manville was deservedly given an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actress, Krieps’ owns Phantom Thread every bit as much as Day-Lewis despite being snubbed in a deep year in the Best Actress category. Johnny Greenwood’s clever yet subtle score is also the perfect companion to Anderson’s quirky vision, helping to hide some of the best gags in the film and creating an ambience of elegance and mystery. Though you’ll likely have to see Phantom Thread more than once to let everything soak in, here we have one of the most daring movies of the year, and another great entry in Anderson’s list of unique and challenging films.


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David James
I've been a cinema addict ever since I saw Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as a curious five-year-old with parents who didn't understand the PG-13 rating.