You can play a bit of a parlor game when matching up each Paul Thomas Anderson film to the work by Robert Altman (his clearest influence) it most closely echoes. Under those auspices, his new picture Phantom Thread feels like his Gosford Park: a British period piece that finds the filmmaker working in a distinctively classical style. Gosford Park was also one of Altman’s few genuine commercial hits, alongside The Player, M*A*S*H, and… very little else, though he worked steadily and frequently for four-plus decades.
This, alongside the aesthetic and thematic concerns, seems to be one Anderson’s big takeaways from watching (and, later, working with) Altman; after a few early, half-hearted stabs at box-office success, he seems to have resigned himself to making movies for himself, and whomever else decides to play along. Phantom Thread is, to put it mildly, well within that career trajectory.
In the picture’s striking opening, an army of women march into the multi-level home and workshop of the British couture designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis), ascending the stairway and walking single-file to the sewing tables and machines. They go about their work intently and precisely, as does the man himself, who sketches at his breakfast table and cannot be bothered to talk to Johanna (Camilla Rutherford), the beautiful young woman who is, presumably, some sort of romantic interest.
“Where have you gone, Reynolds?” she asks. “There’s nothing I can say to get your attention back at me.” “I’m delivering the dress today,” he responds impatiently, clearly irritated that he even has to explain himself. “I simply don’t have time for confrontations.” Later in the day, once the storm has passed, Cyril (Leslie Manville), his righthand woman, gets to the point: “What do you want to do about Johanna? I mean, she’s lovely, but the time has come.”
What’s abundantly clear, in these laser-sharp opening scenes, is that Mr. Woodcock—yes, that’s really his name—treats the matter of female companionship as the same locked-in routine as everything else in his life. It is a dance of formalities he can no longer bother with, and when he meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress in the seaside town where he keeps a second home, the seduction that follows feels, more than anything, well rehearsed. “I’m a confirmed bachelor,” he tells her. “Marriage would make me deceitful. I don’t ever want that.” But when she proves an acceptable companion, he brings her home as a combination model, muse, and handmaiden. The relationship eventually begins to crumble, in what seem to be the usual ways. And then Alma shakes it up.
“Maybe he’s the most demanding man,” she admits, and he is, you might say, a bit of a prickly pear; when she brings him surprise tea in his workshop, she’s severely chastised and sent away with spite (“The tea is going out; the interruption is staying right here with me.”) Cyril makes excuses for him, saying things like, “If breakfast isn’t right, it’s very hard for him to recover through the rest of the day,” but tension and hostility develops between them, and finally explodes over a private dinner argument, the kind of spat where the words get so out of hand, you end up humiliating yourselves rather than each other.
So Alma takes some action. The curvature of Anderson’s script here is worth contemplating; what we’ve seen up to this point has been, when you get down to it, a comedy of manners, and keeping her precise intentions hidden is… a risk. Yet that is, to these eyes, where Phantom Thread finds its juice: in the unpredictability of the third act’s turns from sweet to sour, and the corresponding tone of the movie itself, where suddenly, thrillingly, all bets are off.
The film’s visual style is ornate yet formally austere, which makes the moments when he lets the camera careen (playfully at Alma’s fashion show, haphazardly as they attempt to remove a dress from an unworthy wearer) all the more affecting. Jonny Greenwood provides the music (his fourth straight Anderson film), constructing a score that’s jazzy and mellow but forcefully involved, a reminder of the manner in which, in every film since Magnolia, Anderson has used the music as a motor—not only carrying us from one scene to the next, but propelling us.
Yet all of these gestures towards conventional critical form—ah yes, the plot, the performances, the direction, the music—are essential an obfuscation of the key takeaway of Phantom Thread, which is that it’s such an exhilaratingly, unabashedly odd film. This should not come as a surprise to his admirers; his last feature was the bafflingly complicated and borderline nonsensical postmodern noir adaptation Inherent Vice, and it followed The Master, a film that steams along for two-plus hours like a pressure cooker that’s about to explode, yet never grants its audience (nor its characters) that release. Even There Will Be Blood, his previous Day-Lewis collaboration and biggest box office success (though still bringing in a fairly modest $40 million domestic), is a spectacularly idiosyncratic piece of work played in an often off-putting key, impudently thumbing its nose at conventional redemption arcs and the niceties of prestige drama.
Yet when he was anointed “the next Quentin Tarantino” before the release of his breakthrough film, 1997’s Boogie Nights, it was presumed that his big sophomore effort would replicate Pulp Fiction’s $100 million-plus box office. It didn’t; it stalled at $26 million. He put the biggest movie star in the country into his next picture, 1999’s Magnolia, and it made even less. He followed that up by making a film tailored specifically to the biggest comedy moneymaker in the business, and it made less than both of those. After a run like that, it’s hard to blame him for giving up on connecting with a wide audience, and focusing instead on weirdos like himself. (And me, and perhaps, if you’ve read this far, you.)
To be clear, Magnolia was not a typical Tom Cruise movie, nor was Punch Drunk Love a typical Adam Sandler movie—that’s what made them so compelling, to see their onscreen personas (and respective baggage, both positive and negative) married to Anderson’s singular sensibility. But by the time he was preparing Blood, it seems the path was determined, and that path brought him to Phantom Thread. It’s a film so gleefully peculiar, so brazen in its disinterested in convention or meeting audience satisfaction, that it sort of takes up residence in its own atmosphere. Some will read that as praise; others as a warning. Go with God.