Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (“Boogie Nights,” “There Will Be Blood”), “Phantom Thread” is a romantic drama with an almost obsessive focus on its two main characters and their relationship, one that dips more than a toe into psychological warfare.
Mousy Alma (Vicky Krieps) enters into an affair with renowned fashion designer, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis). Their relationship (like most, come to think of it) is based on a push and pull dynamic, a back and forth that is endlessly engrossing as it unfolds. They’re two very different but equally headstrong people who find themselves in love, and the movie traces their attempts at a functional relationship.
Actually, it’s Alma who has to figure that path out. Reynolds is mostly in his own world. Dismissive, arrogant, obsessive-compulsive about his work and his life in general, he’s a handful; elegant, and elegantly petulant. But he’s a genius of his craft, and part of Alma’s attraction is based on this.
What initially draws her to him, though, are those all to brief moments in between his bouts of feverish working, where he pulls his head out of the clouds (or his ass, if you will) and pays attention to the world, the people surrounding him, and not just the sketch pad in front of him. What’s fascinating is that Alma’s in love with both sides of this man, not just the cuddly version when he’s exhausted and human.
A simpler movie would have her in love with only this half and trying to destroy the other in order to perfect the man she wants to be with. But this isn’t a simple movie. Alma worships his talents, his meticulous craft. She loves him for it and wants to be with him at all times: When he’s in full-on working asshole mode, she wants to be his assistant, a subordinate orbiting his genius. But it’s only when he’s exhausted that she can be with him in a romantic sense, and that’s when their power dynamic changes. That’s when she’s in charge. The genius of the script is having her love both sides of this man, needing both. And the genius is how she goes about balancing them.
Alma’s the character with the most dramatic urgency, the one who makes the choices in the film. Everybody else reacts to her. But she’s quiet, seemingly deferential. Like Orpheus descending into the underworld, she steps into the realm of Woodcock and, honestly, looks ripe for a steamrolling by the more outwardly powerful people around her. What I loved about the film is watching Alma unexpectedly holding her own against these forces of nature and doing so while remaining true to herself. She remains quiet, but quietly defiant; this Orpheus might just make it back without looking behind her.
That’s one of Anderson’s many gifts as a writer. He deals in the unexpected, creates interesting characters that are flawed, all too human, but with a specific integrity and talent that makes them captivating, and then drops them into situations that pits them against one another, tests their character. Through it all, they somehow remain true to themselves, but their actions always surprise you.
And Anderson does something with his characters here, Reynolds especially, that I don’t see reflected too often on the silver screen, something we all can recognize in ourselves. We have two (or more) distinct modes to our personality. We’re not just one thing. Reynolds, accordingly, has these dramatic ups and downs. He’s almost two people. But there’s a dramatic through-line that connects his two sides.
He’s loving, caring, thoughtful on certain days and then obsessed, critical, myopic most others, but through it all he’s always passionate, intelligent, focused. It’s a wonderful detail that Anderson builds the entire film around.
And the music illustrates this dichotomy perfectly. The film begins with what sounds like the ringing of tinnitus before giving way to a gorgeous, lush orchestral score. Johnny Greenwood’s soundtrack is both melodic, romantic, and even reminiscent of classic Hollywood cinema, but then its tampered by these syncopated arpeggios that are a little disturbing and unpleasant, pierced by high pitched violin squeals that are downright off-putting. Two very different, opposing sides smooshed together. It’s Reynolds Woodcock. It’s us. But in musical form.
Even though “Phantom Thread” may seem, on the surface at least, to be just another relationship drama, it’s so much more than that. With the credits rolling, Greenwood’s magnificent score chiming in the background, I sat in the theater transfixed, luxuriating in that high you get from watching something special. Unexpected, thoughtful, and wholly original, this is great cinema.