‘Phantom Thread’ arrives in wide release

Images courtesy Focus Features.

9/10 Undoubtedly the coolest title of 2017, Phantom Thread, has finally arrived in theaters. Why is it called that? Why did a movie with artistic heavyweights Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis take this long to get here? Who knows.

In 1950s London, renowned dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis in his “final film“) cycles through women like the changing seasons, with only his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), who he still lives with, remaining constant. On sabbatical, he meets Alma Elson (Vicky Kreips) at a remote diner and the two fall in love. Elson moves to the city with Woodcock but quickly discovers that he’s already quite in love with himself.

Phantom Thread is a charming if slightly poisonous love story taking place over a period of several years. The film is framed as Elson explaining her relationship with Woodcock to a doctor in hindsight, and it feels like a memory as you’re watching it — short, unrelated snippets play out back to back to back, with no obvious rhyme or reason. Taken together, they paint a picture of a relationship that seems much larger than its 130 minute confines.

A listless piano score presides over everything, making the whole movie feel like it’s playing in the background of an upper-end speakeasy, and it would still be a joy to watch in that setting only out of the corner of your eye. As a Paul Thomas Anderson film, it is impeccably shot and lit, made with adoring period detail.

It could be a difficult film to read. Woodcock and Elson seem to grate on each other more than anything else, and their dialogue and performances are layered with often sharp double-meanings. With an emphasis on nuance and multi-tiered communication, the film skews heavily toward a mature audience who will appreciate all that’s going on. It would be easy to see Phantom Thread as devoid of conflict if one failed to recognize the brutal war of words being waged between its lead characters for what it is. The film demands a lot of attention, but there are a lot of knowing chuckles, some of which develop into knowing belly-laughs, from older viewers.

There’s also a fun food motif to guide the audience — whatever Woodcock is eating in a given scene symbolizes his relationship to Elson, and he’s eating all the time. Dining is a relatively rare thing to see in cinema, despite how often we do it, but Phantom Thread can’t go 20 minutes without seating its characters around a table.

You’re not fucking retiring. Shut up.

This is writer/director/producer Anderson’s second Manic Pixie Dream Girl film after 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love, but Phantom Thread is shifted 90 degrees to the left. The plotline, typically centered on a audience-surrogate male hero who learns to live life to the fullest when an impossibly quirky woman stumbles into the frame, has grown more and more out of fashion as its sexism grew more apparent. It speaks volumes that probably the most memorable use of the trope is its brutal deconstruction in 2009’s (500) Days of Summer.

But in Phantom Thread, instead of an impossibly lively female character who wants to ride bikes in the rain or whatever, Elson just wants to go out dancing sometimes or bring her boyfriend some tea, and instead of a neutral male character, Woodcock is so set in his ways that this turns into an argument. The Me Too movement and broadly changing social moors cast an interesting if-distant shadow over this aspect of the film, as it does over just about everything in Hollywood right now.

There are several other contexts to understand Phantom Thread from, but it deserves to be observed for its own merit at least once or twice before putting it through the lens of what’s come before.

Phantom Thread will go into wide release Jan. 19.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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