Anderson’s “Phantom Thread” Fails to Live up to Lofty Ambitions

“Phantom Thread” opens with Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a celebrated fashion designer of the 1950s, in his incorrigible routine: an uneventful breakfast, stilted conversation with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), dealings with his occasionally-royal patrons and a dinner and sleep as tranquil as the breakfast that began the day.

The rest of the movie details the change and destruction that his newfound model and muse, Alma (Vicky Krieps), ushers into his disciplined life. This change is evident when the scene of breakfast occurs again, only with Alma’s blue blur of a dress interrupting the shot’s placid composition and the silverware rattling as she blithely neglects upper-class dining customs. True to his archetype, the aged artist hides little of his repulsion with her unorthodox ways. But he is just as attracted to this storm brewing in his life, and, as the film unfolds, the designer’s indifferent exterior crumbles to make way for his twisted fixations that never quite find resolution in the unconscious.

The spine of the film is the increasingly dark and toxic relationship between Reynolds and Alma, and this is quite obvious. But as the title would suggest, director Paul Thomas Anderson makes it a priority to have us see the phantom in the threads. From one perspective, a phantom thread describes the surprising durability of their toxic dynamic. Every scene in the second half of the film seems to show the death of a relationship, but the two cling to one another as if possessed by dubious forces.

From another perspective, a phantom thread refers to just those forces: forces of the past, like the lock of his mother’s hair Reynolds has sewn into his suit. Indeed, Reynolds’ unresolved issues with his mother turn his character into something wrong and inhuman, an alien who not just desires but hungers for the sadomasochistic back-and-forth with Alma and distances himself from his own sister due to her inadequacy as a reliable participant in the poisonous arrangement.

It is unfortunate, then, that this premise is so hindered by weak writing. Ever since 2007’s “There Will Be Blood,” Anderson has sucked all warmth and vigor from his films. His movies have become cold and arid, and in the process, they’ve grown cryptic. This new style paid dividends in “Master” and “Inherent Vice” both of which, coming from the vantage point of broken men, chronicled the violent introduction and expansion of American capitalism. They were soulless and rudderless, if only to reflect the vices of their subject. “Phantom Thread” has similarly lofty ambitions, but it cannot fit its siblings’ clothes. The film wants to explore the troubling concessions, repressions and perversions that are fundamental to any acceptable impression of domesticity: the strained performance of affection and the equally strained suppression of changing moods and hearts. It is no smaller task than a critique of modern romance that weighs on the film’s shoulders.

But where it should fly, as Anderson’s work so often has, his newest film resorts to running. Like Anderson’s older films, “Phantom Thread” jumps from episode to episode, creating a loose chronology that make for a vaguer arc for its central characters. Reynolds’ mommy issues collide in superbly tense encounters with Alma’s growing realization that in front of her troubled lover she models not clothes, but people. This is all fine and good, but the film’s select encounters cannot sustain Day-Lewis’ and Krieps’ fantastic performances. Every tensely mumbled conversation always sounds like it is lacking something more than volume. Reynolds’ psychological problems are impatiently stuffed into one piece of dialogue and dream, while all Alma receives is a sexual rival at whom to enviously stare. The previously mentioned second meaning of phantom threads — the dubious force of the past still acting upon the present — thus fizzles out due to a scarcity of plot to embody it

Scarcity, unfortunately, becomes the keyword to the whole experience of viewing this film. The soft music, subdued performances and sophisticated set design are expertly coordinated to suffocate the growing tensions in the Woodcock household and workplace. The piano jingles accompanying Reynolds’ day are lovely as music, but they add little to the already plenty-subdued affair of the film. Krieps, though she gives an explantory rendition of the given material, nevertheless lives up to the name of Alma, possessing little physical presence and resembling more and more of a disembodied spirit. A spirit, a phantom! If only it felt as though it was by design. As her scarcity of charisma stands, she feels more like a will-o-the-wisp.

Day-Lewis, in perhaps his last film role, is excellent as a child subdued in a genius artist’s body, but does not bring out the inherent tension between the conflicting characteristics.

The sets, though pristine and aristocratic, are almost plain for the purpose they ought to have served: pointing out the decidedly base behaviors playing out within.

It is a disappointing irony that a feature so coherent and calculated unspools into such a mess. Expectation follows pedigree, and Anderson’s career has never been short of breathtaking. Even “Phantom Thread” one of his weaker films, is a film worth watching and thinking about, at the very least as a learning experience. But even so, it is difficult to shake the feeling that “Phantom Thread” is cheap cloth for the body that used to be.