No Spoilers until there are.
Daniel Day Lewis is inarguably the greatest living actor of this generation. Very few actors even come close to his level, at this point. His body of work is so remarkable, it’s actually unbelievable. Every single time the man has appeared on screen, he’s done something pathbreaking that has managed to carve it’s own space in cinema history. Yes, history. So what happened when he announced his retirement? Shock. Sadness. Bit of anger. Rage. More sadness. Anger. But between all this, the inability to get yourself to wait for his last film. Phantom Thread.
There will be blood (2007) was Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day Lewis’ last collaboration. Boy, what a film, what a performance. The film really made you question the conventional ideas of character motivation and how projecting that has no rule, whatsoever. Daniel Plainview is one of Daniel Day Lewis’ greatest ever characters. Even for a man with a career like his. Writing about this film will need another long piece, so let me not get into that. On to Phantom Thread.
This film was already special because of it’s collaboration. Paul Thomas Anderson Directing. Daniel Day Lewis as the lead actor. Holy shit. Then we got to know about the retirement and it became far more special and also, emotional. There was a rough idea in my mind, about what to expect from this last collaboration. Having only watched the trailer and avoided every written piece about it, I clearly wanted to be thrown off guard. PT Anderson has done that to me and millions of others with almost every film. This time, I needed it more than ever. The argument of movie build up sometimes ruining a movie is often justified but mostly, it’s utter nonsense. If the film holds, the expectations you went in with should be rendered irrelevant. It’s the same reason why some films surprise us. About the entire world PT Anderson creates in Phantom Thread, what fascinates me a lot is how the idea that flows under this film would need such strong conviction and belief before creating this world in the first place. Anderson has quite candidly and jokingly spoken about how the idea came to him (when he was lying sick in his house one evening) but to actually take it forward and build all this (especially because it’s a period film) on the basis of one idea, that is nothing short of insane, requires a tremendous sense of confidence in one’s own storytelling. PT Anderson deserves to be applauded for that.
The film is set in 1950s London and is centred around Reynolds Woodcock, a dressmaker who falls in love with a strong willed waitress, Alma. Woodcock is all about his work, his work and his work. There is nothing else his life has space for. Alma is a strong woman who wants him to herself. Reynolds works with his sister and is highly reputed as a dressmaker. He is obsessive about every inch or should I say, stitch.
Woodcock as a character is almost a license to be insane. In no manner does PT Anderson make it look like his obsessiveness is costing him. In his personal space, yes sure. But on the professional front, women would die to be in his dresses (literally). Woodcock, strangely enough, does want Alma around him and doesn’t want her around at the same time. He seems like a man who wants things happening around him or just people “existing” around him but not intruding with any of his work. Another way of looking at it is, he wants people around him who help him and give an impetus to his work. Nothing and no one else. Even the slightest sound could get on his nerves during his breakfast work session.
Jimmy Kimmel, while talking to PT Anderson brilliantly pointed out the humour in the film. The kind of humour used in Phantom Thread is an incredible brand of dark humour. The obsessiveness can get you to laugh but also, sort of, make you sit back and observe this man and his routine that never stops making your jaw drop, really.
Reynolds’ sister, played remarkably by Lesley Manville, is an extremely intriguing character. Her relationship with Reynolds is almost like a business relationship. Surely, that’s nothing short of what he wants but he also wants to use her as a bouncing board for his frequent rants, which she is not at all ready for. She warns him about “getting into an argument” with her. She says he wouldn’t want to and yes, he does seem like he doesn’t want to. She helps him with his work but he also wants to run his complains at her, every now and then which she, quite rightly, refuses to entertain. She acts as an intermediary between Alma and Reynolds, not establishing her stance clearly. She is fond of Alma but hates Reynolds’ routine being disturbed that would hamper the business and in turn, her business relationship with him. It’s a vicious cycle where people want things so blatantly and unapologetically.
Finally, Alma played by Vicky Krieps, is an intriguing and exciting character. You must understand, if she didn’t enter this story, the monotonous life of Reynolds and his sister Cyril would go on and on. Alma initially appears to us as an innocent young girl who is intrigued by and interested in this old, obsessive man. If you didn’t ask yourself why she would be, you have the answer in the end. His obsessiveness is presented to her right at their first meeting when he orders his breakfast. (PT Anderson recently said you can know a lot about a person based on what they have for breakfast https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/feb/01/paul-thomas-anderson-you-can-tell-a-lot-about-a-person-by-what-they-order-for-breakfast) As bloody crazy as this sounds, it’s strangely exciting as a prospect. There’s a slight change in her demeanour when Reynolds makes her try the dresses. She is a bit embarrassed but after Cyril speaks about his liking towards her, she starts smiling again. What’s so brilliant about her character is the craziness that’s just waiting to come out. With Reynolds, it’s out there. You know it. With Alma, there’s always was a sense of something you were about to discover and get shocked by. Get shocked by indeed.
It’s hard to pick a favourite scene but certainly a scene that was exceptional was the “gun scene”. The humour, craziness or should i say, borderline insanity in this scene is taken to a level Anderson didn’t go to even with There will be blood.
The scene above is probably in the 5 best scenes of 2017 (Not yet sure if it’s going to top. Yet to watch 12-15 films)
The genius of Anderson’s writing and storytelling style lies to you about the kind of film Phantom Thread is, all the way. Until this point. The biggest hint at this being a twisted love story is shown to us when Woodcock asks Alma to marry him in that slow track in shot, after he was poisoned. The writing genius makes sure you think this is only because “he admires the way she took care of him”. Well, yes but what lies below that is jaw dropping. Just the crazy thought of it.
Phantom Thread is almost like an ode to insanity, in some sense. One of the most fascinating things about it and about a lot of Anderson’s work is how he sometimes mixes subtlety with insanity and craziness. This film is the greatest testament to that. The treatment is subtle and resembles any classic film (a lot thanks to the brilliant background music by Jonny Greenwood) and Anderson uses your knowledge and understanding of such classics to fool you into believing this is a story like those that you have watched over the years. Even if you’ve followed his work for a long time and know something insane would eventually come up, his storytelling style manages to tell the greatest lie a film has told you in 2017.
As for Daniel Day Lewis, we hope you change your mind. We hope another film comes to your doorstep and you just can’t help but agree to jump on board. Cinema needs you. Acting needs you. Art needs you. But even if you stick with this decision, you have left iconic work behind that we will revisit, forever.