2017 kept its greatest work toward the end of the year. This went as expected; many producers and studios try to get their most proud work recognized during the awards season. One film that definitely made an impact was the secretive “Phantom Thread” by Paul Thomas Anderson. All we knew about the film was that it is apparently the last performance of Daniel Day-Lewis’s brilliant career.
Otherwise, we didn’t get a single piece of promotional material until the winter release date was looming over our heads; it was almost as if the film wouldn’t arrive at all. This isn’t unusual for Anderson, who has hidden behind the spotlight of other films while “The Master” seeped into the forefront from out of nowhere.
“Phantom Thread” worked the same way. This works because we have come to expect great things from the Californian director, whose canon is possibly one of the most solid you can find today (“Hard Eight,” “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia,” “Punch-Drunk Love,” “There Will Be Blood,” The Master” and “Inherent Vice”). That isn’t an unranked top 10 list. I simply spewed out the films he made in order, and the quality from all of the above says enough that it could be mistaken for either.
When it comes to “Phantom Thread,” whose lush qualities have the cinematic world in a stranglehold, it is a typical day at the office for PTA. In terms of how it sits in the scope of 2017’s films, it certainly is one of the best of the year. When you look at Anderson’s directorial work on the film, it is actually difficult to argue against the notion that it may possibly be the best direction in a film from 2017.
1. He accurately portrays the highs and lows of the fashion industry
Like every other film he has ever made, Anderson has a signature style that can be felt in an entirely new world that feels alien to him. You know what you’re getting, but you never know what to expect. In “Phantom Thread,” Anderson analyzes the fashion industry of the upper class society in 1950’s England.
His dedication to fixating on every miniscule detail of dressmaking is seemingly akin to what Day-Lewis did to prepare for his role as the unforgettable Reynolds Woodcock. Day-Lewis learned how to stitch and make dresses well enough to actually put together clothing.
It’s almost as if Anderson also became a dress maker himself, because he knew exactly how to outline each and every scenario in a way that both educated and accepted its audiences of all types.
He zooms in on the notes that are being taken, and the measurements as well, with such intensity. The close-ups of buttons being sewn and fabrics being stitched together puts you in the mindset of Reynolds (or one of the seamstresses). These shots do not go wasted, because you now feel like a part of these experiences; you are sewn into the fabrics of the film.
After our introduction to the film’s style and nature, we get into its anxieties. It pinpoints each and every aspect of the fashion industry with such flair. When Reynolds’ models are walking the runway without a stir in the air, you rightfully see Reynolds losing his temper with the heightened energy backstage.
This is a highly accurate portrayal of any fashion show, and Anderson didn’t just capture it literally, he caught it thematically to place you in both shots.
2. He turns the film into a lush caricature of the fashion industry
Before I continue, it is worth noting that the director of photography would usually get the credit for this kind of work, even if it is what the director intended. However, Anderson operated the camera for this film (with the help of other crew members, hence why he refuses to be called the director of photography for this picture), so every single shot is likely exactly what Anderson intended.
With that in mind, his use of lavenders, magentas and other pastel-like colours cannot go unnoticed. “Phantom Thread” to the general public is a tastefully shot film that engulfs you with its soothing visual textures; it is its own top design.
For cinephiles, this looks like a slightly aged film (early coloured Kodak stock would turn magenta over time, so it is common to see pink-clad films from before the mid ’70s when different stock was then used). For all, this film feels like a distant memory, but one we wish to welcome into our present.
3. He creates claustrophobia so well between bickering lovers and siblings
This discomfort is no stranger at this point of the film. By now, no one is still truly sound within the claustrophobic house that Reynolds brings his latest muse to (Alma, played by Vicky Krieps).
Alma is a free spirit who leaps toward any opportunity with spontaneity, and Reynolds is a stickler who hates to have anything out of line. She is thus the ideal who walks freely within the confinement of his garments (as he is a perfect dressmaker).
What pits these two opposite forces together is the lack of distance in the small household (which is also the home of Reynolds’ sister Cyril, played by Lesley Manville).
Opinions clash, especially when the fight is usually two against one (siblings against the newcomer, women against the sole man, lovers against your sibling).
4. He turns the every objects in the film into something much more
It will sound like an insane comparison– mostly because it is a mild one– but “Phantom Thread” bears a weird resemblance to Darren Aronofsky’s polarizing thriller “mother!” because of the metaphorical households they both entail. In “mother!,” the entire story is an allegory to the world and how humans have treated it.
In “Phantom Thread,” while you are still watching a tale of actual characters who go through real events in their lives, you are still given fairly strong representations of love, stability, life and death. In one household and its immediate surroundings, you have so many items to work with.
The mushrooms provide health and sickness depending on which ones are picked. What once represented a key ingredient to life in the Woodcock household is now a sign of malice and even death. Death is a notion Reynolds is familiar with, since he is superstitiously afraid of the ghost of his dead mother. This mother appears to him during his episode of sickness after having eaten the wrong mushrooms.
The doors that close right next to each other when Alma and Reynolds go to bed are representative of a struggling relationship. They close each other off, yet they are still side by side, whether they wish to be or not. The spiraling staircase is often used as a way to show that neither Alma or Reynolds are on the same level when it comes to ideas (a strong example is the surprise dinner sequence).
Between the precise use of the household, the faintly pure colour schemes and the exquisite wardrobe throughout the film, “Phantom Thread” becomes a living and breathing fashion editorial illustration. There is something so imaginatively artistic about it, as if it were almost a series of cartoon images. Yet the themes all seem to hit close to anyone who has ever fallen in love, so the extremities mirror our own experiences.
5. He works with absurd plot points with flair
Speaking of qualities that are over the top, we can also look at the biggest surprise of the entire film: the mushroom subplot. It has been described by numerous other critics as a plot thread (perhaps the stray thread that Reynolds overlooked in his final design) that mimics Alfred Hitchcock’s kind of deviousness. I couldn’t agree more.
It seems like such an odd story element to include, but lest we forget that Anderson also brought us frogs that rain from the sky from virtually out of nowhere. Here, you are witnessing a woman who becomes hateful with love; she wishes to harm her partner to make him a stronger partner.
It’s so out of left field, so questionable, and yet it fits reasonably well because it’s just so Paul Thomas Anderson. If any director can work in what-the-fuck moments from thin air in normal films without insulting his audience, it’s Paul Thomas Anderson.
6. He handled complex characters with ease
Like this plotline, the characters and their natures could have also been stupidly obnoxious under the wrong direction. Having three people clash for an entire film can easily be a recipe for disaster (much like the dishes that include poisonous mushrooms).
However, Anderson knows how to utilize his characters of varying styles well enough to make each trait a catalyst for another character. Reynolds’ perfectionism is not helped by his protective sister, which results in the loss of patience within Alma. These bursts from Alma combat with the stern Reynolds until she realizes that he only is all in one piece when he is in control of himself.
Once he loses his abilities to function, he has no idea how to cope at all and needs guidance. Cyril could be his beacon, but Alma takes charge through the very driven nature she learned to have in order to keep up with the Woodcock family.
7. His different kind of twist left at the end of the film ties the film off in a way that feels nearly magical
With the swirling character traits and the elements of surprise within an impeccably definitive picture, you actually aren’t quite sure where the film will go. For a period piece picture, it isn’t unusual to not be predictable, but it certainly feels refreshing to be completely out of the game. This is where that ending comes in to finally seal the deal.
Throughout the film, you see Alma tell her tale about living with Reynolds. You don’t know if she has left the house, but you can gather that she has. When the mushroom storyline starts, you dread to think that maybe Alma killed Reynolds.
Finally, you see Reynolds eventually get a word in edgewise at the end of the picture; he is laying on Alma’s lap like a child or a pet. She has some power in the relationship now, and he has some humility.
The entire film suddenly shapeshifts into a bizarre love story that is of bittersweet memories of both partners. She was the phantom thread that was meant to not only finish the garments of Reynolds life, but to seal in his story by giving him a story to tell. Through the cinematography, writing and directing, Paul Thomas Anderson told us one hell of a dazzling story in a way no other filmmaker in 2017 did.