Paul Thomas Anderson is a filmmaker who has been critiquing the male ego through out his career. In BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997), Anderson’s object of ridicule was main character Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), an insecure boob whose only asset was his large porn-ready appendage. In PUNCH-DRUNK-LOVE (2002), the milque toast Barry Egan (Adam Sander) had such huge anger issues that his rage almost got him killed. In THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007), the quest for power that drives Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) leads him to dismiss everything and everyone else in his life.And now in PHANTOM THREAD, Anderson’s main character is Reynolds Woodcock(Day-Lewis again), an inflexible fashion designer whose regard for women barely edges past playing dress-up with dolls. Anderson’s focus may be men, but his sensibilities are feminine. There is little he admires in the pigheadedness of the men at the helm of the world.
Yet, Anderson’s ego-driven main character in this film will find his meticulously crafted world turned upside by a woman when she enters his life. She will become his latest model and muse, but Alma (Vicky Krieps) will become something much more. She will be the first girlfriend to refuse to kowtow to Woodcock’s ridiculous patriarchal rules. And while the story takes place in the 1950’s, it is a fitting feminist narrative for our times, one that is right in line with what Oprah Winfrey said last night at the Golden Globes. The time of petty men holding the reins is over. Alma will make sure of it here.
Anderson’s latest has received far too much press covering the fact that Day-Lewis has stated that this will be is last film since he’s retiring from acting. Too many critiques have also been spent on this film as a metaphor for the ego of a film director – something perhaps biographical to Anderson in a way. That’s all window dressing. The theme driving PHANTOM THREAD is its utterly searing indictment of the insecurities of men and how they use and abuse power. The film is a stinging indictment of monsters ruling the catwalk, or any other walk of life.
Anderson drives his point home all the more by showcasing a couture fashion designer in a sliver of an industry that barely touches the masses. Yet, even within that infinitesimal world, a designer like Woodcock is not only the king of couture but also expert at the art of bullying. It’s rather fitting that his name is Woodcock. That moniker may be a bit on the nose, but the character is as rigid as a tree and one unholy prick. Woodcock may be elegant and handsome, speaking in a halting and sensitive manner, but he is still a petulant child. In the age of Weinstein and Trump, Anderson has concocted a film that is both prescient and coincidental. It’s not only a terrific film, it’s a period piece that couldn’t be more timely.
As the story opens, Woodcock is in the process of discarding his current model and muse Johanna (Camilla Rutherford). She is young, beautiful, well-spoken and poised, but none of that matters to Woodcock anymore. Now, she’s become an irritant. Johanna, easily a decade or two younger than her lover, now annoys him with her demands for attention and desire to take the relationship to a deeper level. The fact that she brings up such topics at breakfast is the last straw for this controlling cad who demands quiet to sketch while sipping his coffee.
Woodcock, however, is too weak to break up with her properly on his own. That duty falls upon his long-suffering sister and business manager Cyril (Lesley Manville). She’s used to doing all his dirty work, as well as his random tasks, all so he’s not distracted from his art. She too is cool and controlling, tending towards an all-business attitude even in matters of the heart such as disposing of her brother’s lover. The best she can offer Johanna as a parting gift is a gown of Woodcock’s – one of his older ones. As Heidi Klum says on PROJECT RUNWAY,”One day you’re in, the next day, you’re out.”
After Johanna’s exit, Woodcock decides to spend a weekend on his own rejuvenating at his cottage in the country. He’s so insecure however, the neediest of men immediately starts his quest for a new girl. As he sits down for dinner at a local inn, he can’t help but be smitten with Alma, the beautiful and breezy server waiting on him. Woodcock is so taken by her effortless charms that he immediately asks her to dinner. She accepts and soon he is wining and dining her all over London, impressing upon the impressionable both his talent and tony lifestyle.
Meanwhile, Cyril is skeptical. She’s seen this story play out all too often, so she keeps her distance, refusing to warm to Alma. Soon, Cyril will discover that Alma is far from her brother’s typical paramour. Alma will upend everything in the Woodcock world. She’ll even change the dynamic between brother and sister, as Cyril will start standing up for herself more, led by the example of the interloper.
Alma loves much about Woodcock, but the refuses to be his doormat. She challenges his selfishness, his inertia, and even laughs openly at some of his most egregious behavior. Buttering toast more quietly? Please. She scoffs and it drives Woodcock into quite a tizzy. At times, he threatens to end it all, yet despite the drama, he keeps her around, rather dazzled by her defiance.
At times, the story seems destined to become a riff on BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, with Alma finding the inner humanity within her lover’s beastly behavior. True, she does succeed at bursting much of the bubble Woodcock lives in, but her methods are a lot darker than Belle’s generous bonding over books. Alma will become surprisingly adept at head games herself.
As the story goes on, what seemed like a flamboyant melodrama turns into dark comedy. Day-Lewis, never exactly the funniest of actors outside of his wondrous turn as the silly twit pursuing Helena Bonham Carter in A ROOM WITH A VIEW three decades ago, mines his character’s comeuppance and earns big laughs. As much as I’d like to say this is his film, it’s really belongs to Krieps. She enthralls those in the audience as much as Alma enthralls Woodcock.
At times, watching these two people fight and claw for control in their relationship takes on elements of George and Martha’s codependency in Edward Albee’s WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF. There is also a similar quality in this film to that of the television series MAD MEN. Both Matthew Weiner’s show and Anderson’s film comment brutally on the diminishing power base of obstinate white men in the context of a glamorous profession. Don Draper, and the clients he wrote ad campaigns for, were forced to reckon with the shifting of traditional patriarchal values towards other audiences, most notably the growing voice of independent women. Woodcock too traffics in the world of glamour and aspiration, and he too is a man slow on the uptake in realizing that women no longer will let mere fashion speak for them.
This film never fails to be gorgeous,even at its most vicious. Anderson shoots it like Vogue magazine spreads from the period, letting his wide-framed lensing appear both beautiful and a touch remote. It’s fitting as a visual metaphor of Woodcock’s whole existence. The sumptuous costumes by Mark Bridges and the rich score by Jonny Greenwood stun throughout and are career highs for both artists. (Look for them to take the Oscars in March, in their respective categories.)
Anderson’s film stands brilliantly within the watershed 13-month period of the woman’s march in January, the impact of Patty Jenkins’ take on WONDER WOMAN worldwide, the “Time’s Up” manifesto launched just a week ago, and Winfrey’s searing speech at the Globes last night. He too is contributing to the toppling of the outdated male hierarchy and his PHANTOM THREAD is gloriously in fashion.