Phantom Thread (2017)

Early on in Phantom Thread I started thinking about the miniaturized nature of certain segments in the cinema of Paul Thomas Anderson. At the top of this latest film we see Reynolds Woodcock’s morning routine, clearly practiced to the point of automation, nearly mechanical, though the whole scene lasts less than thirty seconds. He shaves, he slicks his hair, he pulls on his big winecolored socks, his pants. And that’s it. The dressmaker is dressed. One might expect a little more extravagance from a film that’s ostensibly about high-end style and tailored beauty, no?

But Anderson has always employed this device throughout his films, these little nugget-sized glimpses that seem like — or sometimes actually are — improvised scraps rather than written scenes. In Inherent Vice this was sort of the entire movie, an assault of crisscrossing people and places and scenarios that rarely evolve into extended sequences. A better example is The Master, probably Anderson’s finest film, throughout which there’s more of a balance in the overall pacing. We meet Freddie Quell lounging on a battleship, then cut to him commiserating with a group of waylaid soldiers, then cut to him masturbating at the edge of the ocean. Later there’s a very quick scene in which he’s chased down after possibly poisoning someone with a stiff drink, and in this span of a minute or so we already know Freddie to be a scrappy rogue fending off all comers on the outskirts of society.

Midway through Phantom Thread, there is a fleeting glimpse of Alma — played with stunning assuredness by the fantastic Vicky Krieps — preparing a meal in the kitchen. We learn that Reynolds detests his food to be prepared in butter, we learn that there’s a certain type of poisonous mushroom that Alma should avoid, and we learn a bit about Alma’s willingness to give in to demands that are often unreasonable, to put it mildly. We already knew the first point and the last, and so the line about poisonous mushrooms plays as a very PTA-esque piece of dialogue, something a lesser director would have let fall to the cutting room floor without a second thought.

It reminded me heavily of this, an outtake from The Master:

“You had it,” PTA calls from behind the camera. “This is really worth getting.” Are Kools vital to The Master? They do, in point of fact, have a minty flavor to them. This line — which does make it into the final film, sans laughter — does not appear in the original script. But maybe part of the “worth” of the segment is how unworthy it appears, how little and inconsequential. Maybe it’s more significant that we experience these two sharing cigarettes, or experience Alma taking direction in the kitchen. Kools and mushrooms draw our attention only because they happen to be drawing the character’s attention in that moment, and in this sense the moment is all that matters.

Except in Phantom Thread the mushrooms return, first in an interesting diversion from the typical Brit-’50s romantic drama we might have expected and then again, brilliantly, in a finale simultaneously improbable and inevitable. What I had assumed to be a flourish typical of this writer/director was in fact not a flourish at all, and representative of something very atypical in PTA’s oeuvre.

To put it another way: before the film began, I challenged my esteemed moviegoing colleague to note her favorite shots and sequences so that we could rabidly dissect them immediately afterwards. I had in my head the opening tracking shot of Boogie Nights, the stunning shots of the oil-rig explosion sequence in There Will Be Blood, that part in The Master when…well, basically every single shot from The Master. What impressive feats of camera trickery might Phantom Thread hold?

Surprisingly few, actually. Which is not to say that Thread is devoid of beautiful cinematography (quite the reverse), or that PTA’s blocking and framing and penchant for extreme close-up or symmetry are lacking here. They’re not. But there are no bravado tracking shots, no fast-paced sweeps or shudders of the camera (apart from it being mounted on a car during a quick ride to the countryside), no “gimmicky” cinematography. There are limited locations and a limited number of characters compared to everything else in PTA’s filmography to date. Most pertinently to the opening assumptions of this review, there are very few (if any at all) of the miniature segments that seemed to crop up so prevalently everywhere else.

It’s as if PTA came to some sort of conscious realization regarding his own work — though I don’t dare presume what that realization might have actually been — and set about crafting Thread as if he were a first-time filmmaker, or a different filmmaker entirely. This might be considered a stretch were it not almost precisely in line with Reynolds Woodcock’s arc in the film. “A house that doesn’t change is a dead house,” the artist finally admits near the end. More so than ever before, PTA has created something truly apart from his previous works, a shift of more than just genre or tone. Wherever the House of Woodcock ends up by the close of Phantom Thread, the House of Anderson is alive and well.

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