Film critic Jason De Rosso makes a telling observation when he writes about the film, Phantom Thread, presumably the swan song of acclaimed actor, Daniel Day Lewis. “Maybe it’s because Phantom Thread comes close to landing flat on its face that it ends up such a breathtaking experience.” (Click)
I agree. For three-quarters of the film, I sat bored, spending my time watching the actors watch each other. Only as the film closed, could I make sense of the non-sense. Simply put, the film’s pleasure comes after it is over, when one looks back to appreciate its inventiveness.
Two lines, one early in the drama and the other midway, clue the audience on the plot. The first belongs to Alma (Vicky Krieps), a young waitress who finds herself swept into the high fashion world of designer Reynolds Woodstock (Daniel Day Lewis). She’s not the first of his lovers. One of her predecessor sits fidgeting at the breakfast table in the opening scene. But, Alma has a resiliency that catches Woodstock by surprise, a man so controlling, he insists tea be poured without making a sound. She warns him of her power as he peers into her eyes. If this is to be a staring contest, she tells him, he will lose. He smiles at her bravado but he has been warned. In the end, he loses more than a staring contest.
The second telling line belongs to the designer. He has devoted his life to his art to the exclusion of relationships, which he fears. His “understanding” with his sister – that she shall cater to his every need – is hardly a relationship. Yet, when a prominent woman of society decides to leave his couturier house for another, he expresses genuine pain. “It hurts to be rejected,” he admits to his sister. He imagines he is the one to decide who stays and who goes.
As to the first line, the one about the staring match, it foreshadows the young woman’s strength. The second reveals Woodstock’s vulnerability. Phantom Threads isn’t a love story. At least, not in the ordinary sense. Alma is no Pygmalion to be transformed by a great artists. She comes into Woodstock’s life fully formed, capable to devising ways to weaken the master and make him dependent upon her. The interplay between them isn’t about passion but about will.
Alma is the winner at every twist in their relationship. She breaks him down and forces him to confront aspects of himself he never knew existed. Apparently, he likes the surprise. He becomes a willing player in her game. If this is love, it is its underbelly. The pair explores the dark a side of passion without the titillation of sadomasochism, though it hovers — echoes of the 1974 film, Night Porter. (Click)
This film fails because Phantom Thread belongs in the theater not the cinema. If the long silences are to work, as they do in Harold Pinter’s plays, we must feel walls closing in. We must experience the claustrophobic atmosphere of the stage.
Cinema, unlike theater, tears down walls to invite in imagination. Star Wars would fail as dramatic theater. For it, we need the perspective of a telescope, the mind wide open to distant galaxies. Phantom Thread demands the opposite. It requires a microscope where vision narrows to single point, a spot where silence is riveting enough to make the skin itch with impatience, as it does in Waiting for Gadot.