'Phantom Thread' Is Deeply Weird And Marvelously Entertaining

Dec 22, 2017
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. "Phantom Thread" is the latest film from writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, whose acclaimed movies include "Boogie Nights," "The Master" and his powerful drama starring Daniel Day-Lewis "There Will Be Blood." Daniel Day-Lewis also stars in "Phantom Thread" and has said it will be his last movie. Film critic David Edelstein has this review on "Phantom Thread."

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Daniel Day-Lewis plays a British women's fashion designer in the 1950s named Reynolds Woodcock, who's regarded as a supreme artist. He wields a tape measure with delicate precision, runs his long fingers along fabrics and gazes on his handiwork, as seconds pass slowly - the silence broken only by a pencil scratching or measurements murmured to his hovering sister Cyril, played by Lesley Manville. Assistants and clients know not to interrupt. Woodcock is breathing the higher air. He's not a hermit. He has affairs with women, but they're expendable. Until that is, he meets a young waitress named Alma, played by the Luxembourg-born Vicky Krieps, who forces him out of his equilibrium.

Paul Thomas Anderson's latest work is quiet, spare, elegant and deeply weird. I loved it right up until its last scene, which I'll discuss in the abstract but not spoil. It's a comedy, but so deadpan that for a while you might think it's an Ingmar-Bergman-like portrait of artistic and marital anguish. Anderson poses a question I imagine is central to his life as a reported control-freak artist who's also an avowed romantic. How do you carve out a sacred space for creation but also allow your life to be unbalanced by another autonomous human being?

What's most amusing in "Phantom Thread" is how serenely at home Day-Lewis's Woodcock looks in his body, his own roomy clothes, his studio on the top floor of his London townhouse. Only his love of women suggests an attraction to the outside world. Though even then, he courts Alma by bringing her to the basement of his country house, taking her measurements and draping her with fabric. He gazes on her in silence as she attempts to probe his psyche.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PHANTOM THREAD")

VICKY KRIEPS: (As Alma) You are a very handsome man. You must be around many beautiful women. Yes, so why are you not married?

DANIEL DAY-LEWIS: (As Reynolds Woodcock) Well, I make dresses.

KRIEPS: (As Alma) You cannot be married when you make dresses?

DAY-LEWIS: (As Reynolds Woodcock) I'm certain I was never meant to marry. I'm a confirmed bachelor. I'm incurable.

EDELSTEIN: That voice of Day-Lewis, it's high enough to suggest that Woodcock is something of an upper-class twit, but resonant enough to be sexually magnetic even behind spectacles and a bow tie. We're focused on two artists at once, Reynolds Woodcock and Daniel Day-Lewis, both of whose immersion is uncanny. When Alma moves in, she's visibly unhappy as a wallflower. Like his other lovers, she wants to feel recognized, needed. Unlike them, she has a touch of the psychopath. That's when "Phantom Thread" adopts a sinister, Hitchcockian tone that's marvelously entertaining, abetted by Johnny Greenwood's delirious strings and piano score, which is deliberately fulsome. Suddenly there's a war for the great man's soul, perhaps even his life.

Lesley Manville's Cyril is so in sync with her brother that the performance borders on self-effacing until you see how keenly she monitors his every breath. Krieps' Alma is bewitchingly deceptive, her face just mask-like enough to make our sudden awareness of her deviltry a shock. "Phantom Thread" resolves its central question in a way that makes symbolic sense but needed a few more scenes to take hold. The resolution is preposterous even for Paul Thomas Anderson, who once opened his characters' hearts in "Magnolia" by pelting them with a biblical rain of frogs. That said, if you're an Anderson fan, you'll relish the insights into his character. This is the work of a fiercely self-centered artist who seems to long nonetheless to surrender, especially to a combination lover and mommy. As I said, it's deeply weird.

Daniel Day-Lewis has announced that this will be his last performance, that he's retiring from acting to immerse himself in perhaps less emotionally taxing pursuits. We can hardly begrudge someone who's given us so much great work. And I imagine his colleagues will be relieved not to compete with him anymore for awards. So let's happily bid him farewell - not really. Daniel, take a few years off. Grow a beard. Maybe get yourself a knighthood. Then come back. There are many superb actors, but so few we can call heroic.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. On the next FRESH AIR, we'll listen to some great music for the Christmas holiday. We'll be joined by three members of Ranky Tanky, which performs contemporary versions of songs from the Gullah tradition of the Georgia and South Carolina Sea Islands, music linked to West Africa. They'll perform in the studio. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RANKY TANKY")

RANKY TANKY: (Singing) Who is the greatest? We are the greatest. Are you sure? Yeah. Positive? Yeah. Definitive? Yeah. All right. All right.

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. John Sheehan directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RANKY TANKY")

RANKY TANKY: (Singing) Old lady come from Booster, had two hens and a rooster. The rooster died, the old lady cried. Now she don't eat eggs like she used to. Old lady come from Booster, had two hens and a rooster. Rooster died, the old lady cried. Now she don't eat eggs like she used to. Oh, Ma, you look so - oh, Pa, you look so - I said, who been here since I've been gone? Two little boys with the blue caps on. Leaning on a hickory stick, Papa going to slap them good. Slap. Pain in my head, ranky tanky. Pain in my heart, ranky tanky. Pain in my feet, ranky tanky. Pain all over me, ranky tanky. Pain in my head, ranky tanky. Pain in my heart, ranky tanky. Pain in my feet, ranky tanky. Pain all over me. Oh, Ma, you look so - oh, Pa, you look so - I said, who been here since I've been gone? Two little boys with the blue caps on. Leaning on a hickory stick, Papa going to slap them good. Slap. Pain in my head, ranky tanky. Pain in my heart, ranky tanky. Pain in my feet, ranky tanky. Pain all over me, ranky tanky. Pain in my head, ranky tanky. Pain in my heart, ranky tanky. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.