The Most Demanding Men
Batman and Robin. Soda and popcorn. Traffic jams and raised middle fingers. There are a lot of iconic duos out there. In the world of filmmaking, working with familiar colleagues goes a long way towards ensuring quality. High profile pairings are bound to repeat and build further hype upon each successive project. Some of the best movies in recent years have come out of tried and true relationships, such as those between Scorcese and Dicaprio, Cuaron and Lubezky, and Fincher and Sorkin. After seeing Phantom Thread, I believe it is time to anoint a new Hollywood power couple: Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis.
Just in case you were living under a rock in 2007, Anderson and Day-Lewis had previously worked together on There Will Be Blood–one of the last decade’s best movies. Their experience and camaraderie are palpable over ten years later, albeit in a film that couldn’t be more of a departure from its predecessor. Trading the oil fields of California for the ballrooms of post-World War II London, Anderson shifts from following the journey of a disturbed tycoon to the romance of a prestigious tailor and his muse. The scope of Phantom Thread is also very narrow compared to the time-skipping saga that is There Will Be Blood, settling to show us the quiet evolution of a single relationship.
If there is one striking similarity between Anderson and Day-Lewis’s collaborations, it is the unflinching portrayals of their complex characters. Day-Lewis’s Reynolds Woodcock is at once a charismatic gentleman, tireless worker, and unsympathetic knave, depending on who he is presenting himself to. Day-Lewis is brilliant here, rotating between his character’s personalities with ease and delivering meaning with every word and facial expression. Anderson places his protagonist in situations that draw out every bit of the actor’s talents; most successfully in the scenes between Woodcock and the females in his life.
A decent amount of the entertainment value of Phantom Thread comes from watching woman after woman try and fail to earn Woodcock’s attention. Lesley Manville’s Cyril Woodcock is our guide to these interactions, constantly at her brother’s side whether in private or public. The “old so-and-so” is a fascinating character (Freud would have had a field day with the relationship between the siblings), so it is to the detriment of the film that her screen time is stifled in the film’s second half as Vicky Krieps’ Alma Elson rises to prominence. Krieps is wonderful, surprisingly matching Day-Lewis’s acting as they spend the majority of the film face-to-face.
At the outset, this film is a love story. From the first time that Elson meets Woodcock at the country café, to her experiences as his muse and protégé, and all the way down the rocky slopes of their romance, the protagonists play off of each other without sacrificing their individualities. The development of their relationship happens in abrupt moments of Woodcock’s unstoppable force meeting Elson’s immovable object. Considering that the movie is overwhelmingly concerned with two characters over its 130 minute runtime, the fact that these moments don’t feel repetitive or cumbersome is a testament to Anderson’s feel for a balanced story.
Despite the extensive interplay between the tailor and his lover, Phantom Thread is more exactly an examination of the balance between work and life in a man who is singularly driven by his vision. We are given a cross-section of Woodcock’s life before, during, and after the transition in his character that comes from having met his match. The term “phantom thread” is a reference to Victorian-era London, when seamstresses would work so arduously that they would come home after a long day and stitch clothes in their sleep. Similarly, Woodcock has no off-button—his life is so driven by his occupation that his idea of a relationship involves demanding every piece of his partner until they are the ultimate tool in his pursuits. Anderson plays with this concept subtly throughout the film until its climax redefines the theme and completes Woodcock’s character arc, all in one fell swoop.
Like the film’s main character, Phantom Thread is as demanding as it gets. Though minimalist in concept, the film is maximalist in depth. To understand the full breadth of its meaning, Paul Thomas Anderson asks the audience to pay close attention to every micro-expression and line of dialogue. Without the spectacular Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, and Lesley Manville, this would have made for a tedious and joyless love story. However, with its cast and director firing on all cylinders, the film is more delightful than a well buttered mushroom omelet.
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