One filmmaker who has consistently engaged with (usually revolutionary) history is the Haitian Raoul Peck. Many of his films deal with the turbulent times of his home country, a country which has suffered no small amount of turbulence over the last fifty years, as testified by the five-film French DVD box set of his Haitian films (one of which is The Man by the Shore reviewed below). Elsewhere he has turned his attention to thinkers like the American James Baldwin (in the documentary I Am Not Your Negro), to leader Patrice Lumumba (of what was then called the Republic of the Congo, later Zaire and now the DRC, subject of a 1992 documentary as well as the biopic below), and of course to a formative period in the life of Karl Marx.
Although the two principal characters do get married in this film, and there are certainly wedding dresses involved (for the lead character is a fashion designer), this isn’t really about marriage. It’s a relationship drama, though, and a rather twisted one at that, a three-way pull between Reynolds (Day-Lewis), his sister played by Lesley Manville, and a young woman who comes between them and tugs on Reynolds’ affections.
I was all ready to dismiss this film as yet another reworking of the eternal tropes of controlling older men and pliable younger women, an exercise in the manipulation of power dynamics via class, wealth, and the tedious tropes of masculine genius. After all, you can’t watch an awards contender, let alone a Paul Thomas Anderson film, without it being trailed in advance by untold reams of critical dissection that help you along to an opinion on a film you’ve not yet seen.
However, I think what I specifically like about it is the way that it moves from being one thing at the start — an idea of a handsomely mounted prestige costume drama (literally so: it’s about someone who makes clothes) — to something quite different by the end. To a certain extent this reflects the way the power dynamics shift, so that what starts as being about a controlling mercurial ‘genius’-like figure and the psychic toll you imagine he’ll inflict on this young ingenue-like woman, Alma (Vicky Krieps), to the way Alma starts to find power within their relationship and the way he starts to willingly submit to it, becomes really the heart of the piece.
There’s certainly something of Hitchcock to this story, as it seems to be about a man shaping a woman’s identity to his own needs (a hint of Vertigo), yet I think there’s a lot more care taken with the construction than that. For a start, Alma is really the key character here, the one who drives the film in ways that Day-Lewis’s fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock does not, for he is just a man. It’s quite fascinating the way she subsumes Reynolds’ gaze and turns his controlling behaviour back on him, to a certain extent. I won’t go into details, but I think the power dynamic (while clearly unequal) is very interestingly handled, and Lesley Manville as Reynolds’ sister Cyril/mother surrogate is a key to unpicking it. Everything, ultimately, seems to be bound up in that central metaphor of stitching and impermanence.
This isn’t all that’s going on, though. Every filmmaker at some point in their career (if they have one) will make a film about their own creativity, and this feels like that, with Reynolds being the director stand-in. He is, after all, very much just one person within an industry, and this industry relies on the labour of women, in particular. The scenes of the women arriving at the start, of his workers standing around in their smocks just quietly getting on with the work, and then when Reynolds falls ill near the end, the way they work all night on his (their) project are among the more magical sequences in the film, a sort of emotional backbone to his own fragility as an ‘artist’.
Along with its careful symbolism, Phantom Thread has the feel of classic in terms of the way it’s shot (by Anderson himself as far as I can tell, and what a lushly grainy look it has, especially on 35mm), and the period 50s fashions on display. It’s artfully studied, and that suits the story I think. Things resolve with a certain element of perversity, of wilful helplessness, articulated not least in the focus on eating. I’d not been a fan up until Inherent Vice, but I do believe Paul T. has entered the imperial phase of his filmmaking.
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Paul Thomas Anderson; Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho (35mm), London, Monday 5 February 2018 (and most recently on 70mm at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Sunday 5 January 2020).