There are several things I do not like about the movie viewing experience in Taiwan, and chief among them is the erratic release schedule for films that aren’t blockbusters. The award nominees usually get picked up by local distributors during (or pushed back to) award season. The unlucky films, well, they don’t get released at all. I missed Phantom Thread in theaters because it was only screened for about a week. I have been meaning to catch it when it becomes available on home release, and I am glad I finally did.
In Paul Thomas Anderson’s eighth feature film, Daniel Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a sought-after dressmaker in 1950s London. His sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) and he operate out of a sewing house in the city; he and a team of seamstresses sew and she administers both the business and his life. Anderson puts a new spin on the “creative genius and his muse” formula that goes in unexpected directions, but Phantom Thread isn’t a forceful trope reversal. Every component of this movie is nuanced and textured, particularly the characters.
The performances in this film are thoroughly excellent. Lesley Manville steals the show as Cyril with minimal screen time. Daniel Day-Lewis’s final performance as a stubborn egoist is highly memorable, but his character is not complete without Alma (Vicky Krieps). Krieps does much more than hold her own against Daniel Day-Lewis; she delivers a subtle performance: Alma simultaneously caresses and pries away Reynolds’ authority, but also yearns for his affection and is dejected by his formless grip.
Reynolds can be a very difficult man to be around. He believes there is a proper time and place for every piece of fabric and every person. One of the reasons the Woodstock name carries substantial weight among high-society elites is he makes the best dresses. The best dresses, but only according to his vision. During one of his projects, Reynolds tells the princess of Belgium her wedding dress will be the perfect wedding dress, and “perhaps the only wedding dress in the world.” Reynolds does no more than her highness’s measurements and ask for a few general preferences before starting his work and his client puts great trust in Reynolds’s vision. Unfortunately for Reynolds’s partners, his insistence on perfection as he sees it extends far beyond his work ethic. Although he does not claim a monopoly over the secret natural order of the universe, he does not bother to make his thoughts known, either. He merely sneers at those who do not possess his tastes or fail to meet his unspoken expectations. And eventually, when Reynolds grows tired of his muse/lover, Cyril sends her away, one after another, until Alma comes into their lives.
The relationship between Reynolds and Alma is center stage of Phantom Thread, and their power struggle the battleground. The impressionable young woman seeks to find a chink in Reynolds’ armor of self-assurance, and being the headstrong souls she is, she intentionally pushes his invisible boundaries. But perhaps “battleground” is too strong a word. Reynolds is a sensitive and effeminate man, and his assertions are not too confrontational. During his first date with Alma, he reveals that he tends to sew small items into the dresses he makes, unbeknownst to the owner, like they are inside jokes known to only him and the universe. Reynolds’ strings of control are embedded in every nook and cranny of the sterile House of Woodstock. The web Alma finds herself in is delicate, beautiful, and utterly suffocating. These qualities are the prime elements of Phantom Thread’s aesthetics.
The production design of this film is exquisite. Every interior set in Phantom Thread is lovely, but the sets never lose their feeling of authenticity. The wardrobe is especially impressive; each of the dresses made by Woodstock is gorgeous. The cinematography is simply stunning in its use of colors and its compositions. It’s very unfortunate that Phantom Thread did not receive an Academy Award nomination for its cinematography because it was a collaborative effort and no single person was credited. The music adds just as much, if not more, to the atmosphere of the movie. Jonny Greenwood’s piano and string-based soundtrack is tender, sensual, and full of intrigue, and when the film calls for something more dramatic, the soundtrack is able to rise up to the occasion.
Phantom Thread is a unique romance film with powerful performances. Every part of it feels like it is tailor-made for everything else, with nothing out of place. I adored it, and I suggest everyone make time to enjoy this piece of exquisite filmmaking.