Paul Thomas Anderson may be the most Freudian director working today. His films are dotted with children paying for the sins of their parents; seekers who are both eager for and ashamed of sex; and men who want badly to be cradled and get laid, though not necessarily in that order, because they can’t decide on the order themselves. What other director could (with Punch-Drunk Love) surface how a lot of 90s Adam Sandler comedies could be half-psychodrama if they really applied themselves? So with Phantom Thread, a strange but eternal kind of love story, Anderson is quite at home setting his latest film circa 1950, a golden age for psychodramas, where his lovers can take a stroll along a windswept cliffside that wouldn’t be out of place in Rebecca or Suspicion. They are played by Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps as a kind of Svengali and ingenue, each half-enigma or half-phantom in what makes them tick. Carnality is never visible in the film, as it wouldn’t be in any film made there and then. Yet it is unmistakably a tale of battle and conquest, asking us to wonder who is conquering whom, and to what end.
It is Anderson’s return to this time period after 2012’s The Master, a relentlessly psychoanalytic film that, perhaps because of its huge hype, started Anderson’s journey to becoming more of an acquired taste than he already was. (I remember how perplexed people were that it had all the ingredients of an American epic like There Will Be Blood, but turned out to be largely about a spasmodic Joaquin Phoenix grappling with his erection.) But Phantom Thread is also Anderson’s return to someplace else: the main spotlight of Oscar season, with nods for Best Picture and Best Director for the first time since There Will Be Blood. Part of this may be that Anderson has scaled back on the more off-putting scatological aspects of The Master and Inherent Vice; emotional intimacy is a more respectable subject than melancholic horniness, if not necessarily a more profound one. But there is another, more basic reason: it’s his best film since There Will Be Blood as well, his most focused, cohesive, and emotionally resonant, even as it continues his exploration of making films borne on texture and flow. The plot is just a framework; the real narrative is made of liquid.
So, about that framework. The story concerns the relationship between a famous British fashion designer named Reynolds Woodcock—I never said Anderson abandoned scatology completely—and a young waitress named Alma whom he takes on as his latest live-in companion. Reynolds is an intensely fussy man, pathologically insistent on control down to the smallest detail in both his work and his life. His only true confidante is his rigid sister (Lesley Manville). He has preoccupations surrounding his late mother, and he takes on romantic partners only to discard them once they’re worn down. He is an emotional tyrant, more by reflex than intent. And the film that surrounds him is about trying to bring someone into your life without exposing anything of yourself or giving up an inch of your own comfort or routine, which is a recipe for misery if there ever was one. With Alma, he may have met his match—but then, so much about her can seem slippery, too.
The arc of the film has more to do with character, theme, and metaphor than anything as immediate as plot, which means that much of Phantom Thread must be enjoyed the way Reynolds himself might enjoy it: by marveling at its fastidious beauty. As with The Master, Anderson and his composer Jonny Greenwood excel at creating a version of the past that somehow feels both immaculately familiar and utterly alien in its tone, which fits a movie that has the detail to be set either in a specific time and place or entirely in its characters’ minds. The camerawork is gorgeous, while Greenwood’s score makes the film feel like a series of visual musical compositions rather than dramatic scenes. But the compositions start to change. The stateliness breaks down into a sneaky sense of humor, and Alma, initially a cipher, grabs co-authorship. She is, as played marvelously by Krieps, the first real stab at a heroine in Anderson’s films in 15 years, and his work is all the better for it.
I’d never spoil the climax, except to say that what Alma and Reynolds have in store for one another—and what each gets out of their arrangement—gels by the end like a twist on a Hawksian screwball comedy. And as the phantom aspects take physical shape on screen, I was convinced that what I had seen just might be the most perversely romantic film of the year. Anderson, who started his career as a precocious wunderkind and is now approaching fifty, renders emotion in a way that has a worldly lucidity and works like a dream. The film washes over you, and if you are a certain kind of cinephile, it leaves behind the magnificent stamp of cinematic traditions being explored as a fresh and personal quest of discovery. The rave I’m giving it may not be the one I would have given halfway through the movie, or even as I exited the theater genuinely punch-drunk from Anderson’s conclusion. But I’ve lived with Phantom Thread for about a week now, and it only grows. I may be in love myself.
Phantom Thread is playing in theaters around the country and is up for a half dozen Academy Awards. I haven’t mentioned whether or not Daniel Day-Lewis is good in it, because I don’t need to.