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Review: ‘Phantom Thread’ bids farewell to Daniel Day-Lewis

Paul Thomas Anderson deals in intangibles. The San Fernando wunderkind — the greatest filmmaker of his generation — has spent a career removing himself from the conventions of filmmaking. Context is largely absent from his work, at least the kind that can be audibly explained.

This can make watching Anderson’s films a difficult exercise, even if repeated viewings usually reveal masterpieces. “There Will Be Blood,” perhaps the best film of the 2000s, transforms from historical epic to horrific character study with little regard for the audience’s sense of balance. “The Master” tackles religion and belief with the clarity of a brick wall. “Inherent Vice” is technically a comedy, assuming you can weave through the film’s labyrinthian plot (most can’t, and that’s the point).

Here is a director light years ahead of his contemporaries, unconcerned with whether you can keep up.

Luckily “Phantom Thread,” Anderson’s new film and his second collaboration with renowned actor Daniel Day-Lewis, is breathtaking on the first watch. The film follows Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis), a creatively-named couture designer living in post-war London with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville). Woodcock’s rigid daily routine manages to keep his obsessive personality in check.

Cracks are beginning to show, though. Over breakfast, his mistress begs him for affection. Woodcock barely lifts his head from his design sketches. Later that night, Cyril sends her away for good. Then Woodcock meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress who stumbles her way through his breakfast.

A connection is formed. Woodcock brings her to his home, where he begins to design for her. “You have no breasts,” he notices, without scorn. He has found a muse. They fall in love. Alma moves to the Woodcock’s Victorian home and struggles to find a place in his suffocating daily schedule. He wants her to do as she’s told, but Alma suffers no fools. “Perhaps you will change your taste,” Woodcock tells her when he dislikes a dress. “Maybe I like my own taste,” she whispers back. It’s the first of many small rebellions, enough to disrupt Woodcock’s routine. The cracks in that routine drive the drama.

Anderson has explored divergent relationships in other films. But none of them are this approachable. “Phantom Thread’s” synopsis reads like a straight costume drama, and for much of its runtime, it stays within that frame. Krieps and Day-Lewis showcase a warm chemistry from their first meeting. Their exchanges and occasional lashings are fascinating and occasionally hilarious.

Day-Lewis has said this will be his last film, and his performance reflects the quiet subtlety of Anderson’s vision. Krieps matches him in both mood and skill. The film is aesthetically gorgeous. Anderson operated the camera himself and delivers a soft visual palette that never fails to amaze. The score, by Jonny Greenwood (better known as Radiohead’s lead guitarist), uses strings and a melancholy piano to unsettling effect.

What does Woodcock see in Alma? Perhaps a subconscious desire for discomfort. He first takes notice of her as she stumbles into a table, a subtle form of chaos. Even so, as she pushes him to love her outside of his art, the pressure mounts. “There is an air of quiet death in this house,” he confides to Cyril, with Alma listening in. She refuses to be sent away. “Woodcock has made my dreams come true,” she confides to a friend, and to us. “And I have given him what he desires most in return: every piece of me.” On its surface, the relationship is endlessly toxic.

Then Anderson, ever the provocateur, flips everything onto its head. The final five minutes reveal depths beyond its genre, plot and characters in a way that only this filmmaker could manage. Spoiling the details would be a crime. Suffice it to say, Woodcock and Alma walk love’s tightrope with grace. Rarely is their kind of devotion pure; like all things worth living for, it’s far more gray than black or white.

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Dana Alston

Dana Alston

Dana Alston is an Associate Arts & Culture Editor from San Jose, CA. He writes about film, music, and television. Paul Thomas Anderson is his one true god.

You can follow his meme-endorsed social media ramblings @AlstonDalston on Twitter or Letterboxd, or shoot him some eloquent hate mail at [email protected]