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Review: "Phantom Thread"

There's a section in the opening act of Paul Thomas Anderson's perplexing and often brilliant 2012 film The Master where its protagonist Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is working as a portrait photographer in the main foyer of a Marshall Fields-esque mall. It's the 1950s and the wardrobe donned by all the background extras is meticulously true to the time and the whole scenario feels very lived in; you can almost smell the apparel, the perfumes coming from the cosmetics department and the hot light bulbs burning at Quell's photography stand. I mention this particular section from The Master because Anderson's new film Phantom Thread takes those tangible atmospheric qualities and creates an entire film built around the convincing sensory experience of living and breathing during a historical time and place.

This time Anderson has chosen the couture world of 1950s London and he reunites with the great Daniel Day-Lewis (the two previously collaborated on There Will Be Blood, the best film of 2007). Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock (a name the actor came up with himself), one of London's premier dressmakers and he lives in a gorgeous downtown multi-storey home that also doubles as his workspace. In addition to the business hours presence of Woodcock's staff of seamstresses, the other inhabitants of Woodcock's home are his sister Cyril (a scene-stealing Lesley Manville) and whatever lady Woodcock is musing himself with during that particular time of his life. At first it would seem that Woodcock is possibly a closeted homosexual, seeing that a man of his age and social stature in the 1950s should surely have a wife. As we learn more about what makes Woodcock tick, we see that his isolation is not sexually-oriented but more a result of a man whose passions and particular desires really have no room for anyone but himself.

It's during a brief retreat to the countryside that Woodcock meets and quickly falls for Alma (the name is Spanish for "soul"), a plain but pretty waitress at a bed and breakfast. Alma is played by Vicky Krieps in a performance that's sure to make her a stateside household name in the years to come. When Woodcock brings Alma back to London and employs her on his staff (and more importantly, becomes her lover) Cyril automatically assumes Alma will suffer the same hourglass of fate that cursed her predecessors. However, after some tug and pull between surface etiquette and internal volcanic emotions, it becomes clear that Woodcock has met his match with Alma; she proves to be a quiet force of nature and one who will not be swept under the rug as some temporary fixation.

If you're reading this and wondering why I'm hitting plot points more than I am reveling in the filmmaking flourishes of what many know to be my favorite living director (Anderson's Magnolia inspired me to pursue the film arts as a career when I was a Freshman in high school), it's because I'm reluctant to admit that Phantom Thread is a minor entry in the director's filmography. It's rich and it feels vibrantly alive from a production and costume design point of view, but it doesn't necessarily feel urgent or groundbreaking. It's more of a cynical and devilishly humorous take on marital dynamics and our inherent need to feel wanted. It's a fine film, but it doesn't shake any bushes. Anderson told a more unusual and unforgettable love story with his Cannes film fest winner Punch-Drunk Love, starring Adam Sandler and Emily Watson.

Since Anderson only makes a film once every few years, each arrival feels like an event, so I guess we all raise our expectations to unusually high standards for him; it's a good problem to have as a director. In other words, Paul Thomas Anderson is that great.

Still, I'm sure I'll revisit Phantom Thread for repeated viewings, to take in Jonny Greenwood's beautiful -- and I mean beautiful -- musical score and to pick up on the references to the films that inspired it (namely Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca). I may even find its mushroom-connection to Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled more endearing than perfunctory. In any case, a Paul Thomas Anderson film demands to be seen, as it is always a treasure, even if its not the gushing burst of oil that Daniel Plainview looked up to with a trancelike spell.


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