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Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread (2017)

It stands to reason that serious movies deserve seriously considered commentary. Films which have drawn together first rate writers, director, cast and craft people are at a higher level in terms of expectations, and set a higher standard for reflection.

Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread has been placed in that elite group of films which come out every so often that have garnered the type of attention and anticipation reserved for serious cinematic artists. In fact the film was already considered to be of the highest caliber before most people even saw it. And in most aspects the picture did not disappoint.

The film is beautiful to watch. The camera work, art and set design by Denis Schnegg and Veronique Melery, and costume design by Mark Bridges, along with attention to detail, expertly place the viewer into mid-1950s London where the story takes place. The music score by Johnny Greenwood uses an entire palette of musical styles from several periods (Romantic, Impressionism, Modern, avant-garde) to enhance the story. Reportedly Anderson had no cinematographer, but relied heavily for the photography on the camera people.

We are immediately drawn into the high end personal dressmaking trade of the 1950s, and to one of it's most painstaking and eccentric high priests of the trade, Reynolds Woodcock, whose designs grace the figures of wealthy, famous, and royal ladies of London. He lives and breathes dressmaking, which allows him no personal life apart from interaction with his sister, who serves as his manager, confidant, and sounding board. His dress making process is like battlefield preparation, assembling his soldiers for their tasks, and having the maneuvers carried out with military precision. But soon Woodcock happens upon a waitress by whom he is enchanted, and the rest of the story mostly concerns their relationship.

The film was anticipated to be masterful, the presumption magnified by Daniel Day-Lewis' announcement that he was retiring from film making due to the rigors of performance in this project. His acting was predictably exceptional and many-faceted. Lesley Manville, as Woodcock's sister, turned in an icy cold and first class performance, putting many in mind of Judith Anderson's Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock's Rebecca. Vicky Krieps was good as Woodcock's mistress, although she seemed slightly miscast, lacking of a full range. The rest of the cast was as natural and believable as if it were a documentary. And in fact many of those playing Woodcock's staff were not actors, but professional seamstresses.

There was no plot to the film, but instead more of a linear story. The relationship between Woodcock and his mistress, who he eventually marries, goes through many changes, as does the juxtaposition of his sister and wife. But midway through the final act Woodcock suddenly has a major personality change. Within five minutes the movie shifts from an intriguing drama to an art house film. The result is mystifying and not quite believable.

WARNING: "Phantom Thread" spoilers below
To suddenly believe that Woodcock would knowingly and purposefully consume poisonous mushrooms to make himself ill in order to enter into a pact with his wife, who will then both control and take care of him, is perplexing and uncharacteristic. Putting his life in jeopardy to continuously be his wife's ward strains credulity. The scene offered the opportunity for a fine bit of acting from Day-Lewis; and in fact reportedly the idea for this came from a time when Anderson himself was sick, and his wife showed him extreme tenderness. But yet the notion that the protagonist as a self-centered monomaniacal artist who insists on obedience and complete control of all his endeavors would suddenly cede his life and well being to another is irretrievably far-fetched. Presumably Anderson must have been consumed by the story point, but since it was not lead up to with sufficient preparation, it didn't make sense.

The title Phantom Thread was itself a phantom, since the word "phantom" has no bearing on the story, except to perhaps give the project more mystique. One could imagine that simply "Thread", or "Woodcock's Thread" might have better fit the bill.

Will we see another project for Daniel Day-Lewis, despite his announced retirement from films? It has been 5 years since his last outing, so perhaps in time he'll change is mind. We hope so.

Doc's rating: 7/10