Phantom Thread (Anderson, 2017)

Many things can be said about Paul Thomas Anderson’s ravishing masterpiece Phantom Thread. That it’s a sterling period piece that evokes both the opulence of Ophüls and the twisted sensibility of Hitchcock is a given. That it’s got one of the most sumptuous scores of the decade thanks to Jonny Greenwood is undeniable. That it’s perhaps one of the most bracing three-handers in recent memory is very hard to question. I could rattle off list after list of superlatives, and they’d all be true and maybe a little hyperbolic, but nevertheless indicative of just how electric Mr. Anderson can be as one of our modern greats. It’s hard to watch his work now and make comparisons to other films out in the cinemas, because who else out there is turning tortured darkness into such tactical, tactile beauty? And with such an elegant acuity that even a simple dissolve can send you into rapturous ecstasy?

The one thing I’d like to add to the conversation is how spot-on the treatment of autism is in this film. Neurotypical viewers will largely dismiss Reynolds as a narcissistic asshole, perhaps because they are not familiar with some of the telltale signs. Someone who possesses that familiarity, however, will pick them out right away: the obsessive need for order; the sensitivity to loud noises; the irritability that comes from disrupted routines; the complete and fettered devotion to one’s primary interests; and, most significantly, the inability to communicate and socialize properly—even with people who desire such communication. It’s easy to think Reynolds an awful man, but when I connected the dots, I thought differently. This is a portrait, rather, of a difficult man who is difficult not by choice, but because it is simply who he is. What gives this tale that delicious sense of irony is that the woman who chooses to love him also fundamentally misunderstands him, and because of that misunderstanding, the fog clears and understanding is achieved. One can look at it as a happy accident, except the lead-up is beautifully perverse.

Another thing I’d like to clear up: I’ve seen some people call this trio of characters “monsters.” I feel that’s inaccurate. If Reynolds is indeed autistic (and I can’t read his behaviour as anything but), then he is no monster. Irritating, sure. But 100% human. Alma, too, does some, err, “unpleasant” things; however, considering she misreads Reynolds’ autistic behavior as fundamentally uncaring, and because she refuses to be treated like decorative wallpaper, I’d say she a) holds almost all of our sympathy and b) is creative as all hell (and monsters aren’t, c’mon). Cyril is undoubtedly the most mysterious of the three, and it’s a testament to Lesley Manville’s talent as an actress to mold this mostly quiet and observant role into something unforgettable. Yet though we know little about Cyril’s thoughts and motivations, there is nothing to suggest monstrousness other than a vague aura of Mrs. Danvers resurrected and a fierce protectiveness towards her brother. One can even say she walks away the least “culpable” person in the film, though I don’t doubt she has skeletons in her closet.

I’m someone who thinks neurodivergent characters in film need more representation—and representation that doesn’t reduce them to amusing quirks and oddities (hi On Body and Soul). This film makes an autistic man its protagonist, and it doesn’t seek to smooth out his edges and make him palatable. He’s a prickly son of a bitch, to be sure. And thanks to the effortless magnetism of Daniel Day-Lewis, he’s also a very complicated individual who, deep down, wants a kindness that he doesn’t quite know how to ask for. I love that Paul Thomas Anderson wrote this character and gave him these traits, and I love how Day-Lewis brings him to life with such accuracy. I don’t want this to be his final performance, yet somehow it makes sense that it is. Without prosthetics, without accent work, without theatricality, Day-Lewis bows out proving that his minimalism is just as resounding as the commitment he displayed in My Left Foot or There Will Be Blood.

I must end this review with Vicky Krieps. There is no other way. I don’t know how Anderson found her, and whether or not Phantom Thread will lead to bigger things. I do know that much of the film’s beauty rests with her. From her face to her carriage, she imbues Alma with impish charm and fearless devotion, and makes her strain and darkness seem completely in keeping with the character’s journey through the House of Woodcock. It is an astonishingly level-headed and clear showing in a film where nothing is ever clear, and even in a single and affirmative utterance of “Yes,” there is a magic that seeps out that makes us forget that she is acting against one of the most famous thespians in the world. Yes, Mr. Anderson struck gold when he cast Vicky Krieps, make no mistake. It may even be the case that Daniel Day-Lewis retired because he had finally met his match. I wouldn’t be the least surprised.