'Phantom Thread' close to Paul Thomas Anderson's career best
Posted January 9, 2018 6:47 p.m. EST
Byline: By Mick LaSalle
Fixes headline from Menace to Thread
Paul Thomas Anderson is getting there. He is a great director of scenes, not of movies, but in ``Phantom Thread'' he has devised a film that hangs in from start to finish, his first since ``Boogie Nights.'' His strengths and weaknesses are as apparent as ever, but here his strengths are stronger and his weaknesses obscured. The result is not just a film to wrestle with and talk about, but enjoy.
There is no director better at starting a film, and no director of commensurate talent who has been worse at ending one. And ``Phantom Thread'' follows that pattern, in the sense that its opening scenes are brilliant, and its closing is barely effective -- not quite frogs raining from the sky (``Magnolia''), not quite someone drinking someone's milkshake (``There Will Be Blood''), but gimmicky and unconvincing.
However, this time the proportions are right. The central relationship -- between a self-centered, obsessive dress designer (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Alma (Vicky Krieps), his much younger lover -- remains fascinating throughout, and the ending is, at least, efficient. After a little over two hours, Anderson finds a way to stop the train while his audience is still onboard.
``Phantom Thread'' tells a story of obsessive creativity and how it can destroy everything in its path, when combined with the absolute license of great success. Reynolds (Lewis) is a top designer in 1950s London, who never stops working. We see him, in the first scene, sketching at breakfast and being berated by his latest girlfriend that he never pays attention to her. It hardly needs to be said that that's the last time we see that girlfriend.
What the women in his life don't realize is that his relationships are not a relief for his work, or the point of his work. They function to augment his work, either to inspire him (in the beginning) or at least to keep the sex side of his existence from becoming a nagging distraction. We know all this about him, really, from the first scene -- a marvel of economy from both Anderson and Day-Lewis. Thus, we stand warned, a couple of minutes later, when we see Reynolds working his charm on the young Alma, who becomes his next lover/victim/inspiration.
Whoever thought that watching Daniel Day-Lewis make a dress could be so interesting? He seems to take in every inch of both the dress and the woman underneath it with a quality of knowing appreciation, accented by hints of worry and self-criticism. Will he be able to do it again? If he gets an idea, will he get the necessary next idea, and the one after? On their first night together, after rolling out a few well-practice head games -- ``If this is I staring contest, I'll win,'' she says in response -- he designs a dress for her. The sex can come later, an afterthought. This is the real intimacy.
Also present for this intimacy is the designer's sister (Lesley Manville), who runs the business and serves as a kind of Frau Blucher to the designer's Dr. Frankenstein. The sister records Alma's measurements as the designer calls them out, and everything in her manner suggests that this is all part of a pattern. First the dress, then the relationship, then the demands and the neediness. When it's time for the latest girlfriend to go, it's always the designer's sister who breaks the news and makes sure that the young woman and her luggage are sent packing.
But Alma (Vicky Krieps) has a lot of spine. She is young, naive and powerless, but she seems to know this man she's involved with, and she's a quick learner. She wants to assert herself into the center of Reynolds' life, and the question of the movie -- as well as its struggle and its drama -- turns on that effort. Throughout we don't know if we're seeing the familiar pattern play out, or if we're about to witness something new.
Supposedly, this is Daniel Day-Lewis's last film, but sometimes it's necessary to believe you're retiring just to feel fresh in one's work. (He is only 60 and surely has at least two or three of these retirements still ahead of him.) Reynolds is one of his best roles, which he plays with a mix of hardness and monumental selfishness, combined with an almost plaintive need to keep coming back to his own talent, to this thing that nourishes and devours him. For him, life is simple, a matter of just doing one thing. But to live that way can easily be the path to no life at all and, even more to be feared, artistic sterility.
Like Alma is to Reynolds, Vicky Krieps doesn't try to keep up with Day-Lewis. She watches him intently and finds her openings. She waits for her moments. Guided by Anderson, this is performance as rope-a-dope, and by the end, Krieps has become as compelling as her co-star, something nearly impossible.
Mick LaSalle is The San Francisco Chronicle's movie critic.
3 stars out of 4 stars Drama. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. (R. 129 minutes.)