Phantom Thread



25 December 2017| No Comments on Phantom Thread     by Sean Chavel



For forty-five minutes I believed I was seeing an incomparable masterpiece. But it wasn’t meant to be. Phantom Thread just isn’t a film that completely comes together logically, but damn if it also shows the kind of flair by director Paul Thomas Anderson (“There Will Be Blood,” “The Master”) that demonstrates he is also one of the most distinguished cinematic artists working today. The film has a low-lit, natural airy and frosted look at London in the 1950’s, and I felt early scenes had some of the most beautiful imagery that I had ever seen. Daniel Day-Lewis is an acting legend who seems to be creating a final legendary performance (he has vowed retirement, making this his last film), and so you have tremendous hope the performance will stack up. From the get-go, Day-Lewis is a posh dressmaker for royalty and celebrity, making a rich living from his own five-story townhouse that he decks with a large staff to sew, but to also take any impulsive orders.

It must be said, the costumes themselves are extravagant and memorable. Fastidious is the oft-word of description, and it’s a stirring sight to see the Reynolds Woodcock character in any scene pour himself into the work of measuring and stitching. But what about his personal life?

The woman he is going to destroy is Alma (Vicky Krieps, who is marvelous), a waitress he picks up at a breakfast diner. And what better way to completely win over her body than to have her back at his mansion so she can model for him, and right there, create a dress specifically tailored for her? What’s important about his first impressions is that Woodcock is worldly, courteous, debonair. So smooth and self-assured at being a pick-up artist that you’d think he has been doing it his whole life. I was thinking, how many other women in his life has he seduced in exactly the same way? How does he use then discard them?

Whatever my expectations were of Woodcock as a top-notch playboy did not turn out as so. The relationship with Alma carries on for many months, and scene after scene portray Woodcock as a hot-tempered dictator. He demands obedience, stillness and silence from her. Alma does everything to cater to his whims, but she tests him, and wants to contribute more input into the house. In one scene, Woodcock wants a disgraceful heiress who is drunk in the most vulgar way to return the green silk and satin dress she has borrowed, and Alma – to feel she is a participant in Woodcock’s ego – volunteers to rip it off the passed out body. That kind of co-dependent mischievous character activity is a fascinating development to be sure.

My problem is that Anderson the filmmaker has once again made his protagonist a tyrannical, vainglorious, self-loathing, raging narcissist and by doing that again – and by letting Day-Lewis do that again – is disappointingly redundant to their oeuvre. Day-Lewis had the same personality make-up in Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood.” The same could be said of Joaquin Phoenix in “The Master.”

By giving us a worldly, courteous and debonair Day-Lewis in the opening scenes, it goes too far contrast with making him a raging narcissist. And we wonder, what’s the worst of his behavior then? When we get to the worst of his behavior, as Alma has prepared a private meal for the two of them, he blows up over the asparagus with butter (he likes olive oil), and it’s kind of the scene we were kind of waiting for, since we sensed Anderson the filmmaker was leading us this way. The film though is also deflated to some degree after that scene, because it feels like there is no more believable behavior after that to justify Woodcock as a consistent and coherent character.

Before the film had got that far, oh my god, I had declarations in my head. “This is one of Day-Lewis’ greatest performances!” I was thinking. But playing the darkly troubled character is not only easy for Day-Lewis, but it doesn’t mesh. Day-Lewis could have done wonders with playing a brash, incorrigible playboy who is always out in the world, always conquering. Yet not only is Woodcock self-loathing, his character is a hermit and there’s a long mid-section of the film that is too hermetic. The film starts lacking fresh air. Lesley Manville, as Woodcock’s sister and assistant in the house, offers at least some sarcastic distraction.

Still, despite all holes in character makeup, no other actor of our generation was as exciting and as intensely focused as Day-Lewis who was always in actor working from the interior out. Day-Lewis was a psychological chameleon when he was at his best, as much as a physical chameleon. He often out-shined his co-stars with his dazzle and bravado. This time, thankfully, Krieps does wonders as an ordinary woman who refuses to surrender herself to be a mindless mannequin for this man. In her own subtle, nuanced way, Krieps is a magnetic actress.

Anderson finishes the film off with what he probably felt was a coup de grace – how Alma will find a way to control the control freak. It’s not entirely convincing, and I wouldn’t trust Daniel Plainview, err, Mr. Woodcock in the care of a baby. But in storytelling terms, i.e. fable terms, it’s clever.

I don’t see how it is possible to love it, but “Phantom Thread” is something of a gorgeous folly, and it is a must-see for art film buffs. Maybe only two films in the past year contained images that were more powerfully evoking than “Phantom Thread” when it’s at its best. I can only hope next time Paul Thomas Anderson is through with copying himself thematically.

130 Minutes. Rated R.


Film Cousins: “New York Stories” (1989); “There Will Be Blood” (2007); “The Master” (2012); “Big Eyes” (2014).

Phantom-Thread_Art _Film




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Sean Chavel

About The Author / Sean Chavel

Sean Chavel is a Hollywood based author and movie reviewer. He is the Executive Director of, a new website that has adapted the movie review site genre by introducing moodbased and movie experience based reviews.


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