Watching “Phantom Thread” is like attending the wedding reception of some forgotten friends. You recognize the beauty and glamour in the occasion and even have a bit of fun, but after a while, you just want to go home. That shouldn’t suggest that this latest work from Paul Thomas Anderson isn’t good. It’s just one of those films that despite how eloquently it speaks to you, you just eventually stop caring about what it has to say.
We follow three primary characters in “Phantom Thread:” gown designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), his new love interest/employee/model Alma (Vicky Krieps) and his highly-involved sister Cyril (Lesley Manville). Reynolds is meticulous, talented and lives his life through a set of carefully-orchestrated patterns and habits. Alma, in her every blossoming shape and every forbidden form, represents an interruption in said pattern. She’s the button that has fallen off the trousers onto the floor, the lodged popcorn kernel that the floss cannot reach, an ever-present annoyance that demands your attention.
Initially, Cyril represents a sort of hybrid mother/sister/daughter figure to Reynolds and Alma, serving up ample amounts of familial therapy and tough love. She dislikes Alma at the beginning but warms up to her, while her true thoughts about her brother seem shrouded in mystery. After a while, Cyril passes off her role as Reynolds’ faux mother to Alma, a choice she knows is for the best, but can’t help but look back in her rear view mirror at her tumultuous past. They are all strange, harmful relationships, but each character recognizes the pain their roles cause, and still continue them anyway.
The heavy piano score is engaging but topsy turvy, like a blindfolded Billy Joel playing the background to a game of musical chairs. And the cinematography and direction looks absolutely stunning, particularly scenes that happen during a New Year’s Eve party and a vacation at a ski resort. That really isn’t a surprise at all though, as all the music and the direction for Anderson’s films are usually top notch. And just like “There Will Be Blood” or “The Master,” there’s enough symbolism and imagery here that it could serve as the basis for 10 dissertations of Ph.D students at USC’s film school.
What makes “Phantom Thread” unique, though, is that the mysteries that linger in its cinematic linings just aren’t as enticing to discover as Anderson’s other work. The immediate need to discuss the film doesn’t arise when you leave the theater, the impact as forgettable as the best gown from last year’s Met Gala. It’s still worthy of being hung up in the same museum of his other portraits, but you’ll find yourself spending far less time staring at the paint that composes “Phantom Thread’s” canvas.