Phantom Thread, like its protagonist, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), does not give up its secrets easily, always reserved and distant. In this way it seems the most Kubrickian film I have seen since, oh, the passing of Kubrick himself. It even rather feels like it has the presence of Kubrick, like a ghost, running through it. The film maintains its own pace, and like in Kubrick’s films, each shot has a tendency to linger a little too long, making each feel a little uncomfortable, and perhaps hinting at meanings that might not even be there. Also like in Kubrick films, tradition and ceremony seems to hold import- in Phantom Thread, this is mostly in breakfast, an absent routine for many turned here into almost precise ritual, an exercise in power and control.
The films art direction, too, is so finely curated it feels like another character. I suspect one could return to this film in five, ten, twenty years, and like each time one returns to Kubrick films, it will return something new, some new insight. It is evocative of an era that is as alien to us as the surface of the moon, and is intoxicating and infuriating, warm and cold. I loved it and hated it: so very Kubrick.
But this is not a Kubrick film, of course: this is a Paul Thomas Anderson film; I adored his early films, Hard 8, Boogie Nights, Magnolia but was disheartened by There Will Be Blood, feeling as if it had broken some spell, so painful a film that I only saw it once and dared never to return to it. Indeed, I haven’t seen a film by the director since- both The Master and Inherent Vice have been temptations I shied away from. As a film-buff, it felt like a broken love affair, and while sometimes tempted, it always felt wrong, going back.
Phantom Thread is set in postwar London, and the strange, frankly alien world of 1950s haute coutre, a tale of obsession and control and love that reminded me of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (no small praise, as Vertigo is one of my very favourite films- will Phantom Thread prove as timeless?). I expected a film about art and fashion in the strange world of 1950s haute coutre, but it is actually a bizarre oedipal romance, a man haunted by his mother, trying to shape his muses to his whim and being finally undone by a muse that in turn shapes him to her own.
Or maybe I read it wrong. Maybe its a film about toxic masculinity, of a man in his 60s abusing his status and position, taking advantage of a young woman in her 20s (how sad that this feels so timely). Maybe its a film just about a man ruined by his mother, whose ghost literally appears before him, confirming his fancy that she is always watching him, perhaps always judging him. Maybe its an adult fairy-tale, of the Beast being undone by Beauty. Perhaps it will be a different film each time I see it. Phantom Thread is a complex web, a gorgeous film quite Out of Time, so unlike anything you usually see today. Indeed, how very Kubrick. I hope Paul Thomas Anderson would take that as praise.
Phantom Thread is currently showing on Netflix in the UK, and is of course available on DVD and Blu-ray. I suspect the 4K UHD is quite sublime.