The audience at my showing of Phantom Thread included the following: two older women who whispered jokes to each other throughout the film, a man who explained himself each time he left and returned to his seat, and a woman who incessantly “ooohh”-ed and “ahhhh”-ed like a football game spectator. I wanted to stand up and shout, “Aren’t you people listening to this sound design, which captures every creaking floor and every scraping plate? Don’t you see how the camera sits below Daniel Day-Lewis’s light-drenched face, showing that his character has now become objectified? Aren’t you catching the dissonance creeping into Johnny Greenwood’s ornate score? Aren’t you paying attention? Paul Thomas Anderson is a genius, and you should all stop your lives to admire him!”
Of course, had I done that, it would have only shown how little attention I was paying to the movie. Phantom Thread is many things — sumptuously filmed, richly scored, and wryly acted — but at its most fundamental level, the film is a critique of the Western cult of genius.
Day-Lewis plays the films primary genius Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis), a London-based tailor who lives a life as impeccably designed as the dresses for which he is famous. At times, Anderson’s camera indulges itself in Woodcock’s craft, as one would expect in a movie about a brilliant man. We see the models displaying the final products, but we also watch the full process — the team of seamstresses assembling the piece, and Woodcock sketching and fussing over fabrics. In fact, the first shot of Woodcock finds him shaving and preparing to begin his day, with Day-Lewis weaving his character’s fastidious nature into the way he pulls on his trousers and straightens his hair.
But the film’s admiration of Woodcock begins to change when he enters a relationship with a waitress called Alma (Vickey Krieps), whom he plucks from obscurity. Although she initially seems like the perfect subject for his next project, demure and pliable as she allows Woodcock to use her body, Alma soon demonstrates her own brand of genius. As power dynamics between the two shift, Anderson raises questions about the myth of genius and the ethical lapses we allow from those we admire. I’ve seen some compare Phantom Thread to Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, but the film better resembles William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth, as both feature trapped women gaining power that play with the viewers’ moral sympathies.
To say more would ruin the Hitchcockian fun that follows, a narrative that reaches delightfully absurd heights, but I need to point out this: Daniel Day-Lewis is as amazing as always, and I don’t mean to take him for granted. But equal praise belongs to Krieps and, as Woodcock’s personal assistant, Lesley Manville, as both women sell the central role reversal by subtly unfolding the nuances of their characters. Their roles require performances less showy than that of Day-Lewis, but their ability to meet that demand only speaks to their skills as actors.
Krieps and Manville, in short, are geniuses. As is Daniel Day-Lewis. As is Paul Thomas Anderson. I can see that when I watch Phantom Thread, and I want others to see it as well. But to demand that they conform to my understanding of what it means to respond to genius is to entirely miss the point of the movie.