Phantom Thread ★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

For HorsHedBookends

Paul Thomas Anderson is a director who I have routinely loved over the years, with 4 of his films making it in my top 100 (as messy as that can be) and his style of sweeping camera movements and marvelous use of music is one that stands out while letting the substance of his work overshadow it. Phantom Thread, then, was one I had high hopes for, being something that reflected how Anderson has matured as a director and for containing the final performance from Daniel-Day Lewis before his self-imposed retirement, signifying a man preferring quality over quantity (despite having 2009's Nine in his resume). Yet, as the film went along, I realized this would be one of his weaker films for me, one that contains some absolutely impressive production values, with its set and costume design perfectly exemplifying the period, and yet one I felt a lesser emotion towards than the soul-draining and rich Magnolia or There Will be Blood (among others).

In keeping in line with a film focused on a fashion designer in 50's London, there is a constant majestic feeling to the creation of these dresses seen as high art, and every shade of color pops out wonderfully. Capturing it in 35mm, then blowing it up to 70mm to match the level of grain one would see from a film in this era, the cinematography (uncredited but believed to be Anderson's work) is also perfectly suited to both the needs of the period and style, elegant and confident in its execution. Another key element to the atmosphere is Johnny Greenwood's score, a Gershwin/Debussy-style of music that mixes in the sensuality that grows, then ebbs, as the film plays out, and easily is the most important part in defining the lavishness of the characters and setting ("House of Woodcock" of course being the personal favorite of mine).

So it's coasting along in its presentation pretty well, but what about its story? While Lewis doesn't play his role as compellingly as he does with Daniel Plainview, there is still some engaging subtext on Reynolds Woodcock's controlling behaviour (heavily implied to stem from OCD) and needing something to satiate his self-destructive tendencies. Woodcock meets a girl by the name of Alma Elson, under the pretense of a loving relationship, but overtime it reveals itself as a way to shift his level of power onto someone who will nourish him better than he can. There's a sense that Woodcock is in desperate need of a mother figure, something more prominently shown when he hallucinates his own deceased mother who doesn't respond in his fit of sickness, and Alma takes that mantle of being someone who can actually match Woodcock against a power struggle and form a mutually abusive and co-dependent relationship, as repulsive and confounding as that sounds

It's a case, though, where the subtext is much, much, much less interesting than the text, and it pains me to say that I struggled a bit to hang on to the stuffy, detached nature of Phantom Thread that obviously hides its intentions for the sake of gratification, but that's at the cost of me waiting for something to truly grip me and get the type of strong emotional reaction most of Anderson's work has done to me. To borrow a feeling from StormofCuteness, this film is like looking at a Renaissance-era collection of paintings on chapels, still life, and religious symbols that mean as much to that era as the dresses, food, and flawed characters mean to 50's London. It's very nice and technically brilliant, but does it move me as much as the abstract expressionist paintings/Basquiat-style charcoal nightmare imagery/television sets of two clowns shouting the word "No" for three hours that I can find on the next floor? Not really, but it's one where find enough enjoyment for what it is, and can recognize that I'm probably not the type of person that could really be moved by something as restrained as this. Even though this is in the running for my least favorite P.T. Anderson film, it's still something I'm glad exists, as it shows the limitless potential in his future endeavors, and leaves me waiting with baited breath over what else he's left untouched.

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