Perhaps surprisingly not the lowest grossing of last year’s Best Picture Oscar nominees (that was Call Me by Your Name) but certainly the one with the least buzz as a genuine contender, subjected as Phantom Thread was to a range of views from masterpiece (the critics) to drudge (a fair selection of general viewers). The mixed reaction wasn’t so very far from Paul Thomas Anderson’s earlier The Master, and one suspects the nomination was more to do with the golden glow of Daniel Day-Lewis in his first role in half a decade (and last ever, if he’s to be believed) than mass Academy rapture with the picture. Which is ironic, as the relatively unknown Vicky Krieps steals the film from under him.
I’m probably out of step with most PTA acolytes, in that I don’t much care for his acclaimed early works (Boogie Nights, Magnolia); my appreciation only really takes hold with There Will Be Blood. Everything since has been rather mesmerising – if sometimes flawed – and this wilfully perverse picture is no exception. It flips a tale of an indulged, emotionally manipulative eccentric fashion designer (stand up, Daniel) into a piece about mutual massaging of unhealthy impulses that somehow – at least, at the point we leave the couple in apparent contentment – makes them whole.
I’m not sure I’m fully on board with comparisons to gothic melodramas such as Rebecca, although I can see where they’re coming from. There’s definitely a streak of sadistic intimacy in common, but in terms of genre, Phantom Thread feels like its own thing, even though the director name checks the influences himself. The film isn’t gothic in texture, and while the comparisons to Powell and Pressburger have validity in terms of visual dexterity and acumen with character, they don’t quite feel right either.
In part, there’s the same painstakingly unhurried pace common to The Master and There Will be Blood, and the need to let yourself be led into whichever unforeseen direction PTA wishes to take you. But the route is less obviously accessible here, due to the lack of dramatic fireworks and the contrasting attention to detail of Reynold Woodcock’s attention to detail. Reynold is a prissy, anally retentive genius, “a spoiled little baby” propped up by his ever-present sister (“My old so and so“), who hires and fires his muses with a sell-by-date (muse is an overly kind way of regarding his vassals).
Alma (Krieps) looks to be the shy, retiring latest conquest, swept away by the man and so eventually poised to be ruined by him. Except that she won’t be bowed by his pettiness, even though it appears she has no recourse. We’ve already seen, or been told, of the funks he gets after a design triumph, where he is reduced to an infantile, needy state and so accepting of affection (as much as he cruelly spurns it when he is riding a creative wave). And yet, Alma’s inspired method of taming him through perceiving this still comes as a surprise.
Indeed, the turn the film takes with the introduction of poisonous mushrooms flips your expectations for the picture and the characters in an entirely riveting, inventive and original manner. I’m not entirely sure I even believe it – that Alma knew she wouldn’t kill him, and that the result would play out exactly the way they do – but I’m willing to go with it, simply because it’s so perverse.
You think we’re in Suspicion territory, that Alma will be found out, since their subsequent marriage is built on a huge deceit, and it isn’t long before he’s returned to past form – as soon as their honeymoon, in fact. So, when she makes him a drugged omelette and he eats it, instructing her “Kiss me, my girl, before I’m sick” it’s a deliciously twisted moment of depraved interdependency; they’re both getting what they need, even if the long-term consequences for his liver are in doubt. There’s no indication of the hows and whys of his knowing, but it isn’t really as important as the implications.
Krieps is astonishing throughout, and mesmerising in a way Day-Lewis, for all his ticks and quirks and precision, can’t hope to compete with. Indeed, it may have been as inevitable as your average Meryl movie that he’d be up for awards noms, but it’s as outrageous that she was shut out of the conversation. Lesley Manville is also outstanding as the imperious sister; a later scene, where he goes to her bemoaning the effect of Alma on his life but finds himself thoroughly put in his place by the women he thought he held sway over, is perfect.
This trio hog the screen, but their interactions with others through vignettes still etch themselves on the mind, from fitting Gina McKee’s countess with a horrid dress (my personal opinion, as Woodcock clearly thinks it’s perfection) to Alma snatching one away from an old sous (Harriet Sansom Rose) she doesn’t believe deserves to wear it, to Woodcock blithely recalling how rude he was to Brian Gleeson’s doctor when he was ill, and in so doing being blithely rude to him again.
PTA has made a fascinating film. It is, perhaps, guilty of being somewhat self-conscious in its artistic obsessiveness, replete with precisely rictus compositions. It’s also in thrall to earlier eras in a manner that recalls Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, but it’s hard to argue that the approach isn’t entirely justified by the subject matter. So too, Johnny Greenwood’s score is gorgeous, and feels as if it has come straight out of classic Hollywood; it really ought to have taken an Oscar. As for Day-Lewis, do I really think he has retired? Only for as long as it takes PTA to come up with another role he can’t resist.