Published on May 18th, 2020 | by Noah Dimitrie0
Lazy Sunday Rewatch – Phantom Thread
Our new weekly segment recommends a good flick to revisit (or discover), especially when you’re having a particularly lethargic weekend and have nothing better to do.
I could re-watch Paul Thomas Anderson films all day. I could watch interviews with him all day. I would watch him read the phone book. The Los Angeles native sprinkles this intoxicating charm onto ever interview, every artistic gesture–practically everything he says and does is cool. You hear his laid-back wit in his films’ dialogue. You can see his confidence in every shot and every cut. He’s sort of an anomaly for a so-called “great” artist; he is the opposite of high-strung. He’s the opposite of a tortured genius. Of course, I’m not privy to the guy’s innermost thoughts, but everything he creates seems to be a natural reflection of his cool-guy personality. Virtually every scene in every one of his films feels like it’s living its best life. I feel calm watching them because he is so consistent, and I have a relationship with that consistency not only through his films but also through him as an individual. He makes his art and his personality linked. I don’t think I’ve seen auteur-filmmaking look so effortless and be so reassuring.
When Phantom Thread came out, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The film didn’t come across as flashy or as intense as some of his previous outings (e.g. There Will Be Blood, The Master). It was unclear from the marketing what the film was even about (probably a good clue into why it was not a major commercial success). It’s about the 1950s fashion industry in London…? Daniel Day-Lewis plays a curmudgeon-y designer…? It’s a love story but also a thriller? The ambiguity actually characterized the film’s enigmatic essence quite well, but it didn’t exactly impose excitement in viewers.
But from the trailer, one could infer a distinctive softness to it. It came across as romantic, sensual. There were sharp, dramatic moments spliced into its trailer, yet it was impossible for me not to perceive it as a melodrama—a kind of Douglas Sirk homage. When I finally saw the actual film, I was surprised by how dark and macabre it was. The film crafts a deep Freudian parable; it digs underneath the skin of toxic masculinity, male insecurity, female jealousy, and the often-paradoxical nature of monogamous relationships.
Yet, there is a strong current of romanticism coursing through every scene. PTA made a film of dark and mystifying subject matter in which the characters vary from deranged to reprehensible. And yet, it is impossible not to swoon when Reynolds Woodcock embraces his beloved muse Alma on the street and plants one on her. Each time I see the film, I find it virtually impossible not to shed a tear in the film’s final moments when we throttle forward in time—we see their future child, we see them dancing cheek to cheek at some future New Year’s bash. This is no small accident on Anderson’s part. He wants you to feel that burning passion by proxy. He wants you to feel the conflict, to hate Reynolds and love Alma one minute and then hate Alma and love Reynolds the next. He wants you love them both, to root for them as a couple. Other times, he intentionally portrays their relationship as a hideous monster, one that will eat itself once it has devoured everything else.
PTA pulls this off primarily by making the movie very…quotable. I was going to write “funny” but hesitated. The film is funny more in a meta sense; one cannot help but laugh at the clever, spontaneous, and true-to-character dialogue, regardless of its intended affect. Lines are funny because they are so perfectly in character yet go so much against the grain of conventional dialogue. Considering that is what most of the film’s scenes consist of, the film is thus tied together by a steady onslaught of wit and charm. This is precisely what makes it a PTA film, the way he casually stitches every beat, every line, every emotion into the fabric of his body of work. It almost feels that plot is insignificant in his films—it’s the life that is breathed into those stories that penetrates. The strange scenario of the film depicts works because it’s a PTA concoction.
That isn’t to say that Phantom Thread’s story is boring, however. In fact, repeat viewings just make the film’s narrative sturdier. This is because the plot is the characters and the characters are the plot. The process of sketching out who these complex people are can feel slightly overwhelming on first watch, as viewers will inevitably be stuck on the arc of their relationship. But the key to loving Phantom Thread is letting go. Just as PTA projects his calm and collected nature onto his films, audiences ought to do the same. If you just let the movie hit you, if you resist the impulse to overthink it or to telegraph some kind of twisty narrative, you will appreciate how well the characterization flows into the film’s narrative drive.
And more than anything, you will be struck by how well the film’s simple but even-handed satire is articulated. Reynolds’ toxicity is abhorrent, yet the reality of finding an equally conniving partner to temper his man-child whims is rather sweet. Because, at the end of the day, characters like Alma and Reynolds ring true to us, they represent parts of all of us that come out in relationships. And if they can find love in the midst of all their narcissism, then so can we. It’s just a shame that we don’t have the brilliant Johnny Greenwood to score our messy relationships in real life.