With just a few days to go before Oscar nominations come out, it’s fitting to take a look at a film that is likely to pick up a few nods come Tuesday. The eighth film from writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread has been available in “select cities” (i.e. Los Angeles and New York) for a few weeks, but is now finally in wide release.
I won’t speculate too much on why it may or may not be nominated, but more on the merits of the elements likely to be recognized. Because frankly, the film as a whole is very odd, and at times nonsensical. In no real way can I say I “enjoyed” myself watching it. However, that doesn’t mean the film is without value. In fact some aspects are superlative. This is very much a case where disparate excellent elements make the movie more than the sum of it’s parts.
The incomparable Daniel Day-Lewis emerges from semi-retirement (for what is reportedly his final role; I’ll believe it when I see the obituary) to star as Reynolds Woodcock (cause he’s a dick, you see), a mid-20th century fashion designer with exacting tastes and an almost obsessive-compulsive adherence to routine. A confirmed bachelor who cannot suffer even the slightest irritation, he has his sister/business partner Cyril break up with his current girlfriend for him to begin the film. The next day, he goes on holiday in the English countryside, where he meets a waitress named Alma.
What follows is the oddest “meet-cute” I’ve ever seen, and not just because Alma was my great-grandmother’s name, and I’ve literally never met anyone else with that name. Played by Luxembourg actress Vicky Krieps, Alma is distressingly soft-spoken and wooden at first, answering Reynolds’ quasi-flirtations with monosyllabic responses or repeats of the sentence spoken to her. It doesn’t help that Anderson’s script reads at times like it was written by a grade school student. Before you can blink (in fact before Cyril herself arrives at the family’s country house later that evening), Reynolds has found a muse in Alma, a perfect model (she has “no breasts,” and is therefore “perfect,” which sends shivers down my overweight spine), and eventually a new lover, though the film is intentionally platonic to a fault. There is almost no hint of anything we’d recognize as romance or sexuality in this affair.
Now, Daniel Day-Lewis is, was, and always will be a genius actor, a master of method, and thanks to There Will be Blood, more than familiar with Anderson’s style. Here, he gives another outstanding performance, one very likely to be nominated next week. He takes what would normally be terrible flaws of acting – stilted posture, over-enunciated line readings, pregnant pauses in mundane moments of dialogue – and turns them into something grandiose, which is an amazing achievement, especially when you consider the character’s near-Norman Bates level of devotion to his late mother, as well as the way he verbally and emotionally abuses those around him throughout the first two acts. He’s at his best when he loses himself in Reynolds’ work, from the first time he tries fabrics on Alma to when he nearly collapses from shame when one of his dresses is besmirched by a drunken socialite. Given his emotional stunting and his tendency to gaslight every woman around him (he rarely interacts with any other men in the film, sort of a reverse Bechdel Test), it takes an actor like Day-Lewis to make someone like Reynolds seem even momentarily sympathetic before his oddly karmic and sinister comeuppances.
There is a possibility for Anderson to get one or two nominations for Best Director and/or Original Screenplay (and of course there’s always the chance for a Best Picture nod in the expanded field), but the rest of the potential nominees are in the artistic categories, specifically Costume Design, Production Design, and Original Score. All of them make sense in their own way. I mean, you really can’t ignore a film all about a dressmaker when it comes to the costuming. The set designs and art direction are spectacular, particularly when it comes to the literal House of Woodcock, which depending on the whims of the camera looks equally like a grand chateau or a prison. And Johnny Greenwood’s score (the fourth time he’s collaborated with Anderson) is a piano-heavy gothic masterpiece.
What was most striking to me, sadly towards the negative side of things, was the cinematography and the sound effects. Like the main character, the framing of the scenes is rigid and deliberate. Even when the camera moves, the focus is kept in center frame throughout. There is literally no action on the periphery of any shot until the very end of the second act, at which point the film spirals into a completely illogical mush, especially when it comes to jumping back and forth between the main narrative and a separate interview Alma has with a young doctor played by Brian Gleeson. Rather than meekly leaving like his previous conquests, Alma not only decides to stay with Reynolds and commit to loving him, but she also goes through a spectrum of ill-advised responses to his dismissive behavior, from Madame Bovary-esque social escapades when she becomes bored, to full on Munchausen-by-proxy to garner his appreciation. Seriously, shit gets weird towards the end.
The sound is also off-putting, and it is intentional. Reynolds is easily annoyed when he’s trying to focus on work. So of course the foley artist has to work overtime to make everything Alma does as loud as possible. Buttering toast sounds like nails on a chalkboard. Her chewing is reminiscent of a cement mixer. Eventually it just got to be unintentionally funny. We get that Reynolds is easily irked, but no human being eats as loudly as Alma is portrayed. I get why Anderson chose to go this route, but honestly, it just didn’t work, and it was a glaring, inescapable misfire.
I do recommend seeing this film, particularly for the elements likely to be nominated (and honestly, can you ever go wrong watching Daniel Day-Lewis perform?). I just wish they were in service to a better script and a movie that wasn’t just weird for the sake of being weird. There’s nothing to be said for artistic temperament, so your mileage will vary as to your personal enjoyment, but for me it was very much a case of looking at the separate elements that were great while trying to ignore the other aspects that endangered the film of becoming objectively awful.
What did you think? Is there a movie you want rated before you shell out your hard-earned cash at the box office? Do you just think I’m a dumbass? Let me know in the comments below (though please be a bit more creative than just calling me a dumbass).