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'Phantom Thread' Is Not Cut from the Same Old Hollywood Cloth


It takes about 20 seconds to realize that Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread is a masterful film. The lead character, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) designs elaborate dresses for rich women in London, and right off the film embraces the textures of this world – Woodcock’s clothing, his shoes, the bannister of a stairway, the wall paper; even Woodcock’s voice and the sounds of the other actors become part of the blend – you feel the quality of the sound as strongly as you see the visual composition. It’s an orgy of the physical, as this movie weaves and dances through its story.

Woodcock drives to a hotel in his red sports car; he goes fast, and the road rises as a constant surprise in front of him. He orders breakfast in the restaurant. It’s the first of many breakfasts in the picture, which makes you feel as if the film starts out new every few minutes. This first time, Woodcock orders just about everything on the menu, and adds some sausage as an afterthought. While he lists his breakfast desires, he eyes the young waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps) who appraises him at the same time.

Woodcock is a tyrant. He wants what he wants when he wants it, and exactly as he imagines it will be – that includes people as well as meals. The first time Alma breakfasts with Woodcock, Cyril (Lesley Manville) is at the table. She’s his sister, and she’s been there since before any of Woodcock’s women came to breakfast. She’s in charge of most things now, which in Cyril’s mind, includes Alma. But Alma of the not quite downcast eyes does not look like a pushover. As she tells Woodcock on their first date, no one outstares her.

In her slow-growing power, Alma also has Woodcock’s number. At that first breakfast, Alma clangs her silverware on the china; the sound of spreading butter on toast is like a file on metal, and when Alma takes a bite, you’d think she were crunching a skull. In a way, she is. In his verbose, pretentious way, Woodcock tells her to shut up. She does then – but her dining silence doesn’t last long.

Unlike many, many movies over the past 5 or 10 years, Phantom Thread is a thoroughly original and imaginative film. It’s not like everything else in town. The romance between Woodcock and Alma is not the Hollywood ideal; you can’t rely on either of them to do anything predictable. The glue that holds them together is not made in Hollywood. It’s a stroke of genius that the film does not make Woodcock a fabulous designer. He’s obsessive and nasty and irrational and demanding – yet he’s still a bit out of date and his designs a little too heavy and oppressive.

Daniel Day-Lewis is also unlike other actors. Reynolds Woodcock is in Day-Lewis’s walk, his clothing, his posture, his eyes and even his hair. It’s in the deliberate pace of his affected speech, how his slightly pursed lips show that Reynolds has been holding needle and thread in his mouth for decades. Every move surprises. Just when you think you’ve got a bead on Woodcock, some minor intonation makes you realize that you don’t. But he’s not chaotic; you never forget that this guy is complete and entire, and as the creation of Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis, the artistic discipline is thorough.

Vicky Krieps matches Day-Lewis. Alma is more restrained; she doesn’t lay down the law to anyone, but a changed focus in her eyes, or a shift in tone in her voice give her tremendous power. Her bizarre intentions only come clear late in the film, along with the complexity of the set of her lips and the tilt of her head.

Films like Phantom Thread come along rarely. It makes many of the honored films of 2017 look like amateur hour.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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