Culture

Losing the Thread

Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps in Phantom Threads (Photo: Laurie Sparham/Focus Features)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film is dazzling and frustrating.

A friend recalls that when Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2014 film Inherent Vice was to be shown to the media for the first time during the New York Film Festival, hacks were camping out in lawn chairs overnight to be assured a seat in the theater — for a film that, when it hit commercial movie theaters a few weeks later, turned out to be a tiresome dud.

Anderson’s new film, Phantom Thread, which hits theaters at Christmas, is likely to follow a similar trajectory: frenzied anticipation followed by widespread disappointment. Anderson’s problem is that he believes his own legend and keeps writing thematically askew, structurally lumpy, frustratingly unsettled films that earn him just enough hosannas from just enough critics to convince him that he should keep doing what he’s doing. He shouldn’t.

Phantom Thread, which is about an obsessive couturier meticulously designing high-end dresses for royals and the plutocracy in 1955 London, doesn’t much resemble Inherent Vice topically. Anderson, whose films include Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, and The Master, prides himself on zigzagging wildly from one kind of film to another, never getting stuck on similar motifs the way, say, Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese does. But as Phantom Thread relentlessly undercut itself I was reminded of Anderson’s 2002 film Punch-Drunk Love, which was like a bizarre pastiche of a rom-com written by a chronic depressive.

Phantom Thread, as its writer-director made clear in comments after the film was shown to industry types in New York on November 26, is Anderson’s idea of a love story. But it comes out more like a querulous mockery of that. The second half of the movie, as is often the case in Anderson’s world, seems designed to invite the audience to blow raspberries at the screen as they exit. “Feel-good” is not the sensation Anderson seeks to induce; more like, “Feel inclined to burn down the movie theater.” He is one of the most gifted filmmakers of his generation, but of that group, he is also the most frustrating.

In what the age’s greatest screen actor has declared will be his final film role, Daniel Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, an imperious, curt, and forbidding genius modeled after (among many others) the Spanish fashion designer Cristóbal Balenciaga. He makes finely tailored but somewhat fussy frocks for society ladies right in his London townhouse, where a platoon of seamstresses work for him under the eye of his sister and business partner, Cyril (an icy Lesley Manville). The clockwork efficiency is interrupted by the injection of an element of love: Woodcock, on a visit to the country, is beguiled by a Continental waitress, Alma, who makes him hungry — literally hungry, not full of lust. Also she has the perfect long, lithe frame to model his dresses. Cue a really strange first date: “You have no breasts,” he tells her, as he takes a measuring tape to her every curve and starts making a dress for her on the spot. Just what every girl wants to hear.

On the other hand, what girl doesn’t want to be swept away from her Cinderella-like existence and treated like a princess at the most fashionable address in London, enchanting a celebrated designer and becoming his muse? Yet, for Alma, her sparkly new life becomes dissatisfying: She never gets a moment alone with Woodcock. She needs some reassurance that she is different, more important, more emotionally vital than all the other women buzzing around him all day. She broods and decides to plot a special dinner for just the two of them. But Cyril warns him that the artist doesn’t like surprises.

Vicky Krieps recalls the early films of Alicia Vikander in her ability to command the attention even when she isn’t doing anything.

As Alma, Vicky Krieps is by far the most magnetic element of the film. A previously little-known actress from Luxembourg who is quietly enthralling in every scene, she recalls the early films of Alicia Vikander in her ability to command the attention even when she isn’t doing anything. In a movie that stars the best actor working, it’s startling how easily, how effortlessly, she dominates it. She richly deserves an Oscar nomination, and Phantom Thread is an important film for no other reason than the attention it brings to this luminous starlet.

Yet Anderson’s method once again dooms the movie. Anderson has said he was inspired to write it by the way his wife (Maya Rudolph) looked at him when he was ill, and that he and Day-Lewis hammered out the story together as they went along. Anderson is an inside-out filmmaker: Unlike a conventional director such as, say, Steven Spielberg, he doesn’t start with a story and then deploy the most effective costumes, sets, photography, and music in its service. Instead, he starts with a feeling or mood, works obsessively on costumes, sets, photography and music, but is content to leave the story half-baked. The way this movie ends is simply preposterous. Yet many critics are on Anderson’s exact wavelength; unlike most people, they watch movies over and over again, and so they actually prefer ambiguity to resolution, ragged edges to a tidy three-act structure. How would Anderson direct a great story for the screen? I suppose we can only suppose. Insistent as he is on writing all of his films solo, he doesn’t realize how much his career would benefit if he hired a disciplined screenwriter to help him shape his unruly visions.

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— Kyle Smith is National Review’s critic-at-large.

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