Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread treads through the murkiest waters of morality, and it does so in the full etiquette of its world. Its primary strength lies in the way the tension is handled throughout, in how it builds suspense even if it seems be to be telling us everything we want to know. The emotional bedlam that ensues gradually is the beating heart of the movie, yet its pounding is suppressed in mere whispers as if it to be a nugatory underlining, which causes it to coil inwards. The effect that betides is that every passing frame starts to take on the form of a ticking bomb, due to explode at the slightest misunderstood utterance. So even when nothing remotely wrong is happening in a scene, everything else seems to suggest the very contrary.
This is the textbook example of a director with an unyielding mastery of his craft working here at the top of his form. Consider how Anderson tackles the primary elements of sensuality and tension that emulsify to form the base of Phantom Thread. Rather than the bountiful skin-show that the naïve would have resorted to, Anderson never strays from the suppressed tonality of the world he concocts, choosing to rather resort to the very essence of physical attraction which is the total mobilization of the senses. Lewis and Krieps observe each other intently, scrutinizing every grimace and roll of the eyes and straining to catch every sound of the other. The tension is educed from the subtle lingering between lines and scenes, with this delayed transition giving way for silence to strikingly meander which is then filled henceforth by the mood of the movie, which as aforementioned, never runs for a second without a tinge of tension.
Parts of the movie center themselves on the physical process of the creation of art. The measurements, the tapes and the threads are all unravelled before us, shown here in great detail. Then, a duly focus and patience is given to the very creation of a dress, from the inception circling around the designing process and coming to a denouement with the material fruition. I know all of this sounds pretty boring. Believe me; it is more thrilling than a car chase.
Herein, I also wish to bring attention towards the scrupulous sound mixing which otherwise runs the risk of going unappreciated. So, it is said that artistic processes take place on the right side of the brain, the side that is liberated from the mundane considerations of the verbal left side. Whenever Reynolds gets engrossed in the creative process, Adrian Bell & John Midgley (the sound mixers) draw out all the brouhaha of the external world and immerse us in the world that is Reynolds’ mind. And whenever the external world is perceived from Reynolds’ point of view, every monoscopic sound is incorporated to let the viewer comprehend the incertitude of the relationship between the creative and the external.
The chunk of the runtime deals with shifting power dynamics within Reynolds, Cyril and Alma. Both Cyril and Alma are strong and Reynolds is weak and both want him to feed off their kindness. Alma however fears that Reynolds sees here merely as an object, while Cyril knows that Reynolds sees not Alma’s outside, but the insides. Reynolds is left in a state of stupefaction between this shifting power dynamics dubiety, and in the midst of all this, Anderson subtly masks the crux over which he weaves the entire movie around – the relationship between Reynolds and his mother. The notion of love, dear reader, is a strange paradox. As the fictional philosopher Richard Levy puts it in Allen’s Crimes & Misdemeanours ‘The paradox consists of the fact that when we fall in love we are seeking to refind all or some of the people to whom we were attached as children. On the other hand, we ask of our beloved to correct all of the wrongs that these early parents or siblings inflicted on us. So that love contains in it a contradiction, the attempt to return to the past and the attempt to undo the past’. As we can infer from the sparse information that Anderson treats us to, Reynolds life seems to be a mere continuation of his mother’s, much as the course of a ball on the billboard table is merely the continuation of the player’s arm movement. In the midst of the women in his life, Reynolds intently becomes weak and infirm, so as to compensate in their affection the tutelage from his mother for which he was never privy to. Or is the other way round?
I haven’t the faintest idea, and Phantom Thread isn’t a movie that gives answers. When Anderson pulls the rug out from under Phantom Thread, it raises even more questions. To try to answer them is to miss the point. These are ambiguities which are meant to get under your skin and stay there.
There will be detractors of course, as there should be. But do ignore the ones which say ‘nothing happens’ in the movie. I say so because whether you like it or not, it is indubitable that ‘so much is happening’ beneath what we see. As Milan Kundera once succinctly put it ‘On the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth’.