Can we all stop pretending Phantom Thread is a masterpiece?
To detract from the widely accepted brilliance of Phantom Thread is to challenge gushing declarations that it is "one doozy of a love story" or maybe even "the most surprising love story of the year." It is to shrug at the union of director Paul Thomas Anderson and his leading man, Daniel Day-Lewis, and thus fail to pay proper respect to "the event." It is to scoff at the idea that Phantom Thread "make[s] breathing difficult," as one (concerning) review proclaimed. It is to roll your eyes at A.O. Scott's puzzling claim in The New York Times that he will "happily watch it another dozen times" just to try to find a flaw with this slow-moving film about a fussy couturier.
Well, allow me to detract, to shrug, to scoff, to roll my eyes. Because Phantom Thread is not a very good movie.
In what he has claimed is his final role as an actor, Day-Lewis plays the cranky "confirmed bachelor" Reynolds Woodcock, who along with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), runs one of the most beautiful (but don't call it fashionable or chic!) fashion houses in London. After discarding a muse who makes the fatal mistake of offering him pastries, Reynolds swiftly finds a replacement: the waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps). After wooing Alma with a preposterously long breakfast order ("for the hungry boy," she flirts in return) and a romantic night of taking her measurements in front of his sister, Reynolds brings her back to his house in London as his model, lover, and stand-in seamstress. A battle of wills ensues: Reynolds, unwilling to compromise his carefully constructed routine, and Alma — whose charactonym suggests they are soulmates — unwilling to part with him, in this life or the next.
In the end (here there be spoilers), Alma resorts to "slowing down" Reynolds with poisonous mushrooms for what is not the first time, but the second — a torture he willingly and knowingly submits to. "I want you flat on your back," she tells him as he sighs in reply, "Kiss me my girl, before I am sick."
Here's looking at you, kid, this is not.
Phantom Thread earned six Oscar nominations, including three that the Los Angeles Times expects it to win: "for Jonny Greenwood's score, Mark Bridges' costumes, and Daniel Day-Lewis' lead performance." And to its credit, Phantom Thread is, shot by shot, a visually exceptional movie, one made even more so when seen on 70mm film, which brings out the rich depths and textures of Anderson's debut as his own cinematographer. In a testament to the film's uniqueness, critics face a deficit when trying to find a comparison. Most settle on the films of Alfred Hitchcock, chiefly Vertigo, Notorious, and, of course, his adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's masterpiece, Rebecca.
In some ways, though, this only serves to highlight the intellectual bankruptcy of Anderson's work: Phantom Thread isn't a suspense film, and whatever Freudian "subtext" it intends is repeatedly banged over the viewer's head (a dead mother's locks sewn into Reynolds' coat? Please). Alma, in her one-dimensional quest for Reynolds' attention, is certainly no second Mrs. de Winter, and aside from being past her prime and fiercely protective of the man of the house, Cyril, who ends the film as she began it (steely and dismissive of Alma), is likewise no Mrs. Danvers.
Most disappointingly, for being a film about an industry of surfaces and masks, the theme of beauty is probed, but never seriously interrogated. A soon-to-be-ex-lover is sitting around "getting fat," a princess who wishes for "the most beautiful wedding dress in the world" is later described as herself being "very beautiful, like a sculpture of some kind." Reynolds recalls a childhood nurse who was "monstrously ugly," and in a moment that is strangely moving, a benefactor blinks back tears during her fitting for a dress, whispering with what we acknowledge uncomfortably is honesty: "I'm still so ugly."
This is rich territory! But it doesn't get pushed any further. While there is an intriguing debate over whether the dresses are supposed to be good (I refuse to believe the wedding dress is meant to be anything other than totally hideous), there is ultimately no narrative consequence to if they actually are or are not. Another puzzle in the movie — where Alma is from, and what provokes her strange reaction to Barbara Rose's fiancee selling visas to Jews and her confrontation with the Belgian princess — is ultimately of no import. Perhaps these details are designed to flesh out a more three-dimensional world. But there is so little to work with at the crux of the film that a viewer is sent chasing such red herrings.
Phantom Thread teases its ideas — perhaps it is a film about the muse's outsized role in the creative process? — but none ever actually come to any sort of maturity, leaving the viewer with nothing of any intellectual substance to pursue. This film is an empty vessel — a beautiful one, but empty nonetheless.
But it is the climax of the film when Phantom Thread really unspools. The movie builds to the farce of the (second!) mushroom poisoning where the revelation is nothing more than the shock of the scandal and Reynolds' willingness to submit to it. The serious moviegoer is surely meant to, as Richard Brody puts it at The New Yorker, find that "the farce turns out to be the more tragic … because the subject of Phantom Thread is love, the tumultuous power of love, and the proximity of creation and destruction in art and love alike."
This gives Phantom Thread far more credit than the material earns.
Many have reacted to the "twist" by calling it deeply romantic, a sort of adolescent thrill over love being so tortured and so dark. (Not to kinkshame, but if your partner poisons you, it is a crime). While there are certainly depths to be explored in the ways couples intoxicate each other, literally or figuratively, Phantom Thread is hollow and utterly bewildering (again, we get it, you've read Freud!). The story pales in comparison to others that have challenged the turbulence of love, whether the punishing push-and-pull of power between Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara, or the sawing tensions between artist and muse in Jacques Rivette's La Belle Noiseuse.
The film's faux-melodramatic climax lacks any sincerity, and when the score swells for Alma and Reynolds' ultimate kiss — the first time with any passion in the entire film — the subsequent scene finds Reynolds is bowed over Alma's lap in the bathroom, contemplating what horrible bodily function might come next. One has to wonder exactly how seriously the film actually intends to be taken. This is no genius storytelling, or deep, moving romance. It's just silly.
Phantom Thread is beautiful, yes, but in the same way lace is beautiful: It is delicate, careful, and it hides something that is otherwise plain and unexciting underneath. Unfortunately, no matter how much lace you overlay, you can't gussy up an idea that wasn't there to begin with.