Many reviews praise writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread as, “A lot like the film mother! but actually good.” That’s the only compliment to ever make me not want to see a film…
I don’t particularly care for stories about the creative process of artists. I’m even less patient when they follow male artists who use and abuse the women around them for inspiration. That’s why I can’t help feeling a little weird for liking Phantom Thread so much. Yes, it’s about an obnoxious artist who is unkind to ladies. However, unlike the director of mother!, I suspect that Anderson is just as tired of films about obnoxious artists as I am.
Phantom Thread refuses to take any shit from Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a world-renowned fashion designer who dresses British royalty in the 1950s. Maybe the biggest surprise of the film is that it is far from the typical starring vehicle for Day-Lewis that we expect. Woodcock often takes on a supporting role to Alma (Vicky Krieps), the latest young woman in a series of muses whom the designer makes no qualms about chucking aside when his creativity hits a wall. Except this time, Alma quickly figures out the game, and she has no intentions of being replaced.
Throughout the film, Alma becomes more and more possessive of Woodcock’s work as her own. Why shouldn’t she? The film openly questions whether or not men who must leech off the women they love for creativity are even actually talented. Good on you, Phantom Thread. After all, Woodcock would be completely useless without the women who constantly hold his hand. Day-Lewis is as convincing as usual playing the petulant manbaby who completely breaks down the moment his ultra-special creative process is interrupted. Alma drifts between being profoundly frustrated and simply trying not to laugh. Just about everyone’s in awe of the “House of Woodcock,” except Alma, who knows damn well that her coddling is the only keeping the little twerp alive.
The best character in Phantom Thread, and one of the best characters I’ve seen in months, is Woodcock’s sister and business partner Cyril (Lesley Manville). If Alma sometimes takes Woodcock’s B.S. in stride, but with a condescending smirk, then Cyril comes along every so often to remind her brother that he’s nothing without the dresses he makes. Sure, she’s supportive. But when her brother tries any of his crap with her, she matter-of-factly shuts it down with the best line in any 2017 film: “Don’t pick a fight with me. You won’t come out alive.” A lesser film might have tried to villainize her for being a meany-pants to the poor misunderstood artist boy, but Phantom Thread recognizes that Cyril is a hero.
It’s strange how Phantom Thread feels in equal parts like the film of the moment and the last film we need right now. When douchebag artists who are criminally awful to women dominate the news, it’s hard to sit through a film about a douchebag artist being awful to women. On the other hand, it’s nice to see a douchebag get slapped around a little bit.
Grade = A