Film review | Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread is about many other things, including fashion, the creation of said fashion, the power dynamics involved in relationships and, most importantly, breakfast. Especially breakfast • 5/5

Love and breaking fast: Just one of the many breakfasts had by Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Alma (Vicky Krieps) in Phantom Thread, a film that’s ultimately about the most important meal of the day
Love and breaking fast: Just one of the many breakfasts had by Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Alma (Vicky Krieps) in Phantom Thread, a film that’s ultimately about the most important meal of the day

Artists! Can’t live with them, can’t live without them. Such is the case of Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a couturier based in the booming London of the mid-1950s.

While no one can doubt his skill in his metier of choice - the House of Woodcock counts celebrities and royalty as customers for a reason - one cannot also deny his being, frankly, a bit of an ass, especially when it comes to dealing with the women. But things are about to change when he meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress determined to ensure her gig as Woodcock’s model-slash-muse-slash-lover is anything but a temporary fling...

A stripped-down synopsis of Paul Thomas Anderson’s eighth film might suggest the film is a self-indulgent paean to the artistic life, or a mere slice of older man meets younger woman cliché. Thankfully, Phantom Thread fails to be anything of the sort, instead being about many other things, including fashion, the creation of said fashion, the power dynamics involved in relationships and, most importantly, breakfast. Especially breakfast.

The breakfast table is where Woodcock callously dumps an earlier fling, Johanna (Camilla Rutherford), in a display of his being the kind of spoiled manchild only family, specifically his no-nonsense sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), can handle. Breakfast is also how Woodcock caught Alma’s eye, following what is certainly one of the most impressive food orders put to celluloid (Welsh rarebit with a poached egg, bacon, scones, butter, cream,
jam, a pot of Lapsang souchong, sausages).

Alma also manages to impress Woodcock - not only because of her managing to remember his order, but also through her appearance, including physical aspects she detests (a too long neck, too small breasts, too wide hips). Following dinner, the relationship between the two kicks off, with Alma moving in the London square where the House of Woodcock is situated, immediately learning the joys of living with the man.

Or not, really - another scene involving the most important meal of the day has Woodcock fly into a tantrum at Alma for buttering her toast all too loudly (admittedly the sound design is hilariously loud here, making the act of scraping a knife on bread sound like a bulldozer tearing through the kitchen). But soon enough Alma steels up, learning to not only how to butter toast more quietly and deal with Woodcock’s temperament but also work how to become his permanent lover, if not wife. And this involves a plan that, while Woodcock seemingly wants no part in, is also more than willing to participate in, making for a strange dance between the two.

Phantom Thread’s initial call to fame is its having the final performance of Daniel Day-Lewis before his supposed retirement. While not as outright ferocious as his iconic role in There Will Be Blood, Day-Lewis’ turn as Woodcock is almost uncomfortably intense. He also makes a striking figure, all impeccably tailored suits and magenta socks. However the film’s protagonist is arguably Vicky Krieps’ Alma, whose evolution from mere pretty thing to a something far spikier and dangerous is riveting.

Credit also must go to Leslie Manville, whose high-necked outfits and tightly coiled hairdo bring to mind Ms Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca - and just as well, since there’s a distinctively Hitchcockian touch in Anderson’s direction, a combination of the romantic and comic mixed with horror and even the gothic, particularly as the film’s structure has Alma tell the story of her relationship with Woodcock to his doctor during a particularly dark and spooky night.

The film also feels somewhat personal; not in the sense that it gleans anything about Anderson’s relationship with his long-time partner, actress and comedian Maya Rudolph (unless mushroom omelettes hold significance for the two), but in its dealing with the idea of being an artist, and how fraught relationships with such people can be, especially when this is used to justify otherwise inexcusable behaviour.

One also must point out how Phantom Thread takes time to point out how, like film, dressmaking is a collaborative process, even as the designer, despite being helped by a retinue of skilled seamstresses, is the one who takes sole credit for the final creation. Likewise, with film, and as such one has to point out the likes of editor Dylan Tichenor, costume designer Mark Bridges and composer Johnny Greenwood, without whose contributions the film would be ultimately much poorer.

Cinema has peaked early in 2018 with Phantom Thread, a lush chamber piece of beautiful photography, high romance, dry humour and gothic drama. If Daniel Day-Lewis has truly retired, then he has ended his career on one hell of a high note. The result comes highly recommended and, as such, unmissable.

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