Love & Obsession in ‘Phantom Thread’

Attention to detail. This quality defines a great garment, and is also a quality of diligent students of any craft.

Success in any vocation is likely due to dedication and discipline that trumps the extent an average person is willing to travel. Famous athletes, prolific writers, artists & world leaders all come to mind. Their drive and focus shape the routines and habits of their daily lives.

But what effect does this pursuit have on someone’s personal life? How do they connect with others? Such is the chief question posed by “Phantom Thread,” a new film from director Paul Thomas Anderson (“There Will Be Blood,” “Boogie Nights”). In his second collaboration with Anderson, actor Daniel Day-Lewis (“Lincoln,” “Gangs of New York”) plays renowned, fictional and London-based high fashion dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (a name Mr. Lewis came up with himself). His drive for excellent craftsmanship creates friction with his newfound partner, Alma (Vicky Krieps, “Pitter Patter Goes My Heart”).

Mr. Day-Lewis and Ms. Krieps in a scene from “Phantom Thread”

While clearly talented, Woodcock’s success as a dressmaker seems owed in part to his ordered routines and unique personal world, tailored by his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville, “Maleficent”), whose terseness and clear-thinking counterweights his sometimes childish stubbornness. Dwelling in a fashion house — Woodcock’s house is not a home — is for dressmaking.

The film opens by showing the end of Woodcock’s previous relationship with an aging muse. The viewer’s sense is that these muses come and go, but the audience begins to feel that Alma, idiosyncratic in her own right, is a special match for Woodcock’s psyche. That match, however, comes with tension. The movie highlights growth in both their working and intimate relationships over an unspecified duration in the 1950s; and also shows particular ways in which they push each other’s patience.

“Phantom Thread” has a cohesive thesis that meditates on the interrelatedness of obsessive tendencies, success and love. What balance can one strike in order to both pursue a calling and find love? Are they mutually exclusive?

Anderson’s form is compact, focused and achieves the film’s desired aims of exploring these questions. With lush, but muted hues in tone with London’s overcast environment (in fact, Anderson used smoke effects to give even interior shots a certain grayness), the beauty in this film — from the sets, the costumes, and the shot compositions — blends harmoniously with the mood of the story. Like a perfectly tailored garment, the film’s visuals never draw attention to themselves. Shot on 35mm film and experimental in its use of exposures, the cinematography (there is no listed cinematographer on this film) is as fine-made as one of Woodcock’s dresses — and thus achieves the same understated elegance.

(L-R) Lesley Manville, Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps

“Phantom Thread” is a precisely crafted film and its well-done moving parts — from technical to the acting — come together to rhythmically (perhaps frustratingly) explore the dynamics between two lovers, the walls between them and the motivations that drive them. This film fits particularly well in Anderson’s canon, adding onto his list of bold, sui generis character studies post “There Will Be Blood” (2007).

Likely warranting subsequent viewings in order to fully appreciate its richness, “Phantom Thread” is a layered and subtly daring piece of cinema that diligently examines the difficulty of loving, and of being loved.


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