Imagine that an unpublished manuscript were to be discovered among Henry James's papers. For argument's sake, let's say it's another work of fine needling cruelty in the vein of The Spoils of Poynton, or the Osmond chapters of The Portrait of a Lady. The characters are merciless, savage, unutterably refined. The spaces within it are every bit as claustrophobic as the syntax used to picture them. Reading it is like being struck gently in the face with a velvet mallet.
This is the experience of watching Paul Thomas Anderson's new masterpiece, the poisoned romance Phantom Thread.
Daniel Day-Lewis is Reynolds Woodcock (a Jamesian name if ever there was one), an obsessive, ascetic couturier who, with divine confidence, designs the immaculate dresses worn by European royalty and a rapidly vanishing high society in 1950s London -- imagine Cecil Vyse grew up to be Miranda Priestly. High fashion is not enough, though; Reynolds is romantically blocked. With the collusion of his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville, cut from ice), he has developed a habit of dispatching each young woman who enters his orbit as a muse as soon as she's no longer fit for purpose. None of them, it seems, will understand the arcane, insanely precise structure of his moods and work patterns. But then, in a tea room in a coastal town, he meets Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps), a waitress of uncommon understanding, and she charms him with her quick, stubborn wit, and a warmth that may turn out to be merely luminescent.
To say much more of the plot would be to bruise the delicious tension that Anderson creates. The exchanges between Day-Lewis, Krieps and Manville act on the viewer like a quicksilver injection in the veins. They crackle with libidinal menace; they're witty -- in a vicious sort of a way. Reynolds and Cyril are positively vile to Alma, and it's hard to see how the whole experience might end differently for her than for all the others that preceded her. Yet as with many of the great conflicts in Anderson's recent cinema -- Day-Lewis and Paul Dano in There Will Be Blood, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix in The Master -- the protagonists are more evenly matched than they first appear. The border between predator and prey is membranous.
Much critical attention on the film has bent naturally towards Day-Lewis, who has declared this to be his final film role. And indeed it is a fitting conclusion to an indelible career, the cinematic equivalent of a great pianist essaying the Goldberg Variations one last, masterful time. He's playful, nimble, sometimes frightening as Reynolds, his jaw set against the maddening world, his eyes owl-like behind his glasses, his posture and gait vampiric. But Krieps is a match for him. While Day-Lewis is completely transparent, his cold heart caged, visible, behind his eyes, she gives a performance of a wholly different species, no less powerful. Through her eyes one sees the ocean as glimpsed through a porthole; she is quite opaque; hers is an uncanny, spontaneous performance, frisky, continually surprising, never less than convincing. Manville, too, long one of Britain's most criminally underused, is excellent as the sister-gatekeeper, smothered by her devotion to Reynolds and the House of Woodcock, a villain with a sad face, a complicated woman as sidelined by the film as she is by her own brother. Her gift for spite gives the film some of its funniest moments.
Phantom Thread is propelled and sustained by its unique atmosphere. Anderson has an extraordinary sense for both life's flamboyance and its peculiarity, and here he gives us sequences of intoxicating strangeness: a reluctantly attended wedding which ends with Reynolds's creation being wrested from the comatose bride (Harriet Sansom Harris in a marvelous cameo); scenes of high-speed drives through the English countryside that recall, bizarrely, those of the joyriding droogs of Kubrick's Clockwork Orange; a dinner party in the Alps with more than a whiff of aristocratic swinging; a new year's eve party in Chelsea that features a carnival of giant animals. The lavish visuals are underscored in nearly every scene by Jonny Greenwood's marvellous score, surely the finest soundtrack his partnership with Anderson has yet produced. Dampened piano, lush strings, a high modern style that unsettles as often as it sweeps: this is truly terrific work, helping to sustain the fever-dream ambience that has been Anderson's calling card since There Will Be Blood.
What this amounts to is anyone's guess. The packed house who saw the same screening in Union Square that I did found much of the film hilarious; I did not. I like to think their laughter was a response to the same profound unease I felt throughout, an unease whose intensity was sometimes more like a traditional response to a horror film rather than a romance. As the plot ground on, the subversive undercurrent that had been there all along began to shimmer: there is a conviction one might detect that an act of love may yet entail superior cruelty. That Anderson veers far, far to the left of where his plot might seem to be taking him (classical marital sadism territory) is hugely, maybe even redemptively to his credit.
It's difficult to see a film as ineffable as Phantom Thread finding a large audience, or great gloire come awards season, but those who find it and love it for what it is, an object of intense organic beauty composting in the fungal humidity of an English garden, will love it desperately.
Phantom Thread | directed by Paul Thomas Anderson | released December 25, 2017 | 130 minutes | rated R for language