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‘Phantom Thread’ Review: A Twisted Affair of Passion

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is a handsomely stitched love story, draped with surprising delights.
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By  · Published on December 23rd, 2017

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is a handsomely stitched love story, draped with surprising delights.

An unpredictable, humor-infused courtship drama of sumptuous beauty, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread will playfully startle you when you least expect it. This is less a spoiler, and more a call for patience, particularly from the (rightful) detractors of the ‘arrogant male genius with irritable behavior’ archetype. If Darren Aronofsky’s arduous Mother! left you hurting for its bruised and battered Jennifer Lawrence, a submissive who couldn’t save her unbraced sink if her life depended on it (and it sort of did), you will revel in Phantom Thread’s fiendish, feminist twist. If Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa got you cringing over Lisa’s humiliation during a morning-after breakfast, Phantom Thread will quench your vengeful thirst. Easily among Anderson’s finest and most clean-cut works (with a script written by the filmmaker himself), Phantom Thread is the kind of retribution innocent female muses in ruins the world over deserve. So, I prescribe patience until the film mischievously casts an irreversible spell and takes its well-earned place within Anderson’s obsession-filled catalog of oilmen, porn stars and spiritual leaders.

Set amid the luxurious world of 1950s London couturiers, Phantom Thread follows Reynolds Woodcock (don’t be shy, feel free to giggle at the sound of his name), a proud, perfectionist dressmaker with curious fixations and impractical requirements. His business, “The House of Woodcock”,—a stately townhouse-cum-atelier—is run like clockwork by his dedicated, no-nonsense sister Cyril (an even-tempered, outstanding Lesley Manville, straight out of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca with an icy Mrs. Danvers-like poise.) A routine chain of morning practices cuts through the air of chill in the storied mansion and serves as our entry into Woodcock’s refined, Manderley-esque world: head-to-toe put together seamstresses punch in, curtains get rolled apart to let daylight in through floor-to-ceiling windows, Cyril—in her impeccable charcoal garments with draped necklines and double-line pearl necklaces—securely leads the operations. Woodcock’s breakfast gets prepped to exactness. So what happens when a plain, inexperienced female love interest is sewn onto this shiny, silky fabric like a clumsy patch?

Enter Alma (Vicky Krieps, terrific and deceptively expressionless), a quiet waitress who instantly proves her own obsessive nature the minute she meets Reynolds: she memorizes the hungry boy’s over-the-top, flirtatious breakfast order in a heartbeat. Then she agrees to be measured by Reynolds, a sculptor in his own right, for a custom dress. “He likes a little tummy,” she is told by Cyril, in a backhanded compliment on her figure. “You have no breasts,” Reynolds observationally mutters to her in a god-like manner. “It is my job to give you some…if I choose to do so,” he unpleasantly adds. Ignoring all the warning signs that signal an odd, humiliating possessiveness, Alma moves into the house, turning herself into a customary amalgam of a girlfriend, model and muse for the precious artist, who can neither stand her dining sounds (hat-tip to the ingenious sound team for laugh-out-loud-funny breakfast scenes), nor appreciate her sweet, giving nature. So what’s a girl to do to claim her agency and suck the poison out of her wounded dignity? I’ll just let your anticipation mushroom.

But allow me to spoil one predictable feature: Phantom Thread showcases a generous number of swoon-worthy dresses made by costume designer Mark Bridges, who’s deservedly on his way to winning his second Oscar after The Artist. His garments are made of satin, taffeta and rare types of precious lace, with lilac used as a repeat feminine color throughout. Bridges’ designs for ‘The House of Woodcock’ have a traditional, royal dimension. They are not overtly architectural or structured like the works of Cristóbal Balenciaga or Charles James (two designers often cited, perhaps a tad too liberally to be accurate, as inspirations for Reynolds’ character.) Yet the colors, fabric choices and recurring silhouettes Bridges favors add up to the plausible, tasteful collection of an established designer who, in the long run, might not be destined to compete with the more updated looks of his contemporaries that people call “chic”, a word he can’t stand.

Yet despite being set in the world of fashion, Phantom Thread is not quite a movie about fashion per se, at least not any more than Rocky is a movie about boxing. It is instead a haunted tale of a twisted, unique love affair. It’s the anatomy of an unusual relationship laced with irrational passion where garments stand in as historical bridges, in place of memoirs or photo albums. The pristine gowns and suits that gracefully hang on and envelope bodies against the backdrop of Jonny Greenwood’s gentle score often hint at the silent, sensual life witnesses they happen to be. In the world of Phantom Thread, they are worn by obsessives who delicately tiptoe around grand, all-consuming pursuits until they stumble upon their true match.

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Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.