On the making of Phantom Thread, the pursuit of perfection, and the undoing of Daniel Day-Lewis.
On its surface, Phantom Thread is a film that would have moviegoers like myself rolling their eyes—period piece? Yuck. Romance? Double gag. Lovely soundtrack by that dude from Radiohead? Well, okay, I do like that. Be that as it may, you normally couldn’t pay me to watch a film like Age of Innocence, Daniel Day-Lewis notwithstanding. But wait— hold on! This is Day-Lewis’s final performance? And Paul Thomas Anderson is the director? Okay, okay, this sounds like it might be good. That was the feeling I had going in: That Phantom Thread would be a mix of good and bad but that what I liked would ultimately outweigh the things I wouldn’t.
But once the film started what apprehensions I had disappeared. Early on, there is a shot of Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) in his car , driving through the English countryside. The camera riding atop the car, moving with the road below, makes you feel like you are there with him. Not just in the car, but in the era—the space and time—of the film. It’s a simple shot that highlights so much of the film’s brilliance: It feels of the time without feeling old, and nostalgic without being sentimental. The shot opened the scene to a wider world, where the people spoke and moved unlike the stiff dolls that populate so many period pieces.
The world in question is one of fashion, dressmaking, to be specific, in 1950s London. At first, the people who come in and out of this world may seem stiff, but once we get to know them, we learn that that their stiffness is imbued with meaning and purpose. This is doubly true for the main character, Reynolds Woodcock, whose stubborn routine serves as something akin to a skeleton, holding him up and giving structure to not only the man, but also the rooms and scenes he moves through. In the Q&A following a screening at the Castro theater in San Francisco, Paul Thomas Anderson said that nothing on set was there without Day-Lewis’s approval: Every book on the shelf was placed there and read by the actor himself, and the chairs, the wallpaper, and every other detail were overseen to an obsessive degree. Because Woodcock was an extreme perfectionist, Day-Lewis wanted as much control over the set and settings as his character would have over his own life and environment. And perhaps this is not only why the movie works so well, but also why Day-Lewis and Anderson are so effective together: They compliment each other’s perfectionism.
In Phantom Thread, Anderson set out to create a gothic romance in the tradition of Rebecca, Gaslight, Suspicion, and Rear Window. After the film, Anderson said, “I know Rear Window really well, particularly Grace Kelly’s performance, and the whole idea that Jimmy Stewart was this bachelor that would never get married. [There’s] this thrill he (Stewart) gets on his face when he sees her (Kelly) sneak across to the other room and he gets this look on his face like, ‘I’m in love with this girl. She’s risking her life.’” The affair between Stewart and Kelly in Rear Window is a non-traditional one that transcends just chemistry between the characters. It’s extreme and a little twisted. It’s a love affair that Anderson wanted to draw from when writing Phantom Thread.
Reynolds’s love interest, Alma, played by newcomer Vicky Krieps, is someone who is simultaneously as stubborn as and more alive than her partner. And, like the affair between Stewart and Kelly in Rear Window, nothing could be stranger than Alma and Reynolds’ love. Alma, once a waitress and now the companion of Reynolds, seeks to protect and help him but isn’t allowed to unless he is first wounded, deeply broken, and thus unable to tend to himself. This happens periodically to Woodcock and Alma takes advantage of these moments to grow closer to a man who struggles (to say the least) with intimacy. We follow them in and out of jealousies and as they circle others that may seem more suitable for them. Their love is destructive but it builds. And it is twisted—twisted in the way most love is and twisted in a way only these two lovers could be.
Paul Thomas Anderson wanted a damaged tale about damaged characters and he got one. If there is one negative consequence to be drawn from Phantom Thread and it’s creators’ mad dedication, it’s that, in Day-Lewis, it may have damaged one of the greatest actors of our time beyond repair, forcing him into an early retirement. But if this serves as the capstone of Daniel Day-Lewis’ legacy, I’m not sure he could have picked a better film, moment, or character to mic-drop out of cinema with.