‘Phantom Thread’ (2017): A delectable work of immense pain and beauty
By Murtaza Ali Khan
Ever since his sophomore effort Boogie Nights, American filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson has been making deeply personal films which at the same time bear an operatic quality one generally associates with epics. Phantom Thread happens to be the latest in the series of films that features masterworks like Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, and The Master. Phantom Thread not only reunited Anderson with Daniel Day-Lewis a decade after There Will Be Blood but also marked the end of the three-time Oscar-winning English actor’s film career. Although, Day-Lewis has officially retired there are those who are still hopeful of the Lincoln actor making yet another comeback.
Phantom Thread is not only written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson but it is also shot by him as his regular cinematographer Robert Elswit was unavailable during production. Set in 1950s London, Phantom Thread revolves around a fashion designer, Reynolds Woodcock (portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis), who makes dresses for members of high society. Woodcock is a control freak who doesn’t believe in the institution of marriage. His sister who manages the operations at his fashion house enjoys a significant influence over his life. But, Woodcock’s life changes forever when he invites a foreign waitress, Alma Elson (essayed by Vicky Krieps), to his household.
Phantom Thread has all the makings of an instant classic. It’s the kind of a film that one associates with Merchant-Ivory productions. In fact, had Ismail Merchant been alive today, Phantom Thread would have certainly tempted James Ivory to don the director’s hat once again for at least one more Merchant-Ivory classic. However, what Paul Thomas Anderson creates here is not just vintage Merchant-Ivory but also a reminder of the influence the likes of Stanley Kubrick (lighting, set pieces, and costumes oozing with impeccable period detail), Jonathan Demme (intense close ups), and Max Ophüls (dolly/tracking shots) have had on Anderson.
But, of course, it’s not just a Paul Thomas Anderson film (so what if he has written and shot it himself!) because the film wouldn’t have been what it is without the performances delivered by the inimitable Daniel Day-Lewis and the alluringly charming Vicky Krieps. It’s a travesty that the latter didn’t get nominated for an Oscar. I just can’t remember the last time two actors shared such an intense onscreen chemistry. Perhaps, we will have to go back to The English Patient. If this indeed proves to be Lewis’ swansong then certainly it’s a befitting one. Like a chameleon he gives us another of his immaculate performances that makes us suffer just as we watch him suffer. As for Krieps, she plays her enchanting character with coldness and warmth in equal parts. As Alma, she is both a goddess of kindness and love and a man’s worst nightmare.
Paul Thomas Anderson concocts a heady cognac of such passion, pain, and cruelty that only a bleak ending could have done it the justice it deserved but Anderson interestingly hints towards a merrier closure – a questionable choice that doesn’t add any value to the film in my opinion. Maybe he was catering to the casual viewer standing at the ticket window who wouldn’t care much for a film with bleak ending. But, I wonder why would a casual viewer care for a movie like Phantom Thread anyway? However, keeping the ending aside, Phantom Thread is a delectable work of immense pain and beauty that must be watched by anyone who likes to take his/her cinema just as seriously as a fussy Englishman takes his breakfast or a peremptory dressmaker his measurements.
Murtaza Ali Khan is an independent film critic based out of Delhi, India. He is the editor-in-chief of A Potpourri of Vestiges and is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post. He has also contributed to The Hindu, The Quint, Wittyfeed, etc. He is on the guest panel for live discussions on the television channel News X. He is Films Editor at Café Dissensus.
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2 Responses to “‘Phantom Thread’ (2017): A delectable work of immense pain and beauty”
I have had the privilege of watching THE MASTER by Mr. Anderson and it remains one of the most probing works on the human psyche. Your references of Merchant Ivory productions and THE ENGLISH PATIENT add a welcome note of intertextuality and similitude here. I have written on both the mentioned works on my blog earlier and THE MASTER so do read my essays and let me know.
I guess that the implication of the possibility of a good ending is not a bad thing. After all Lewis’ character, as far as I can recall the film, had this possibility from the very beginning. He is far from the likes of Daniel Planview as one can be. Magnificent, touching story, it will remain one of my most cherished films throughout my life, I am certain of it. Thanks for the review!