Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, The Phantom Thread, chronicles dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) courtship and evolving relationship with waitress-turned-muse Alma (Vicky Krieps). The film often explores the connections and distinctions between the feminine forms that either inspire or demand the creation of Woodcock’s dresses and the final dresses themselves, which proved fitting in my own viewing as I found myself repeatedly considering the differences between the elaborate, cinematic drapery of The Phantom Thread and the ragged old narrative bones holding it all up.
An overwhelming majority of The Phantom Thread really fires on all cylinders. The costumes, colors and set design are engaging. The cinematography flows from cozy and confined to sweeping and elaborate without ever feeling like it’s whipping haphazardly between the two. Jonny Greenwood’s score is the perfect aural companion to the visuals. Day-Lewis gives his most quotable performance since Daniel Plainview.
It really is a remarkable dress. But it’s a dress draped about the frame of a particularly tired narrative. Woodcock is one of a million other cinematic geniuses whose brilliance and/or ambition affords them a casual cruelty and Alma joins the ranks of women cursed with loving a great and important man despite his abuses and neglect.
You’ve seen this dynamic before. Whether it’s the Godfather or Citizen Kane, any number of biopics about visionary men, or, like, any Scorsese protagonist. Hell, we’ve even seen Daniel Day-Lewis play this dynamic before in the 2009 musical Nine.
The Phantom Thread makes an effort to approach this tired trope from an ever-so-slightly recalculated approach vector, but ultimately fails to escape the worn-out “great men have no time for silly women” bullshit that one might have hoped had been beaten to death by 2018. It’s a trope that perpetuates a lazy distinction between brilliance and women, between ambition and women, between progress and women. It’s a trope that implies some perverse correlation between an inability to act like a vaguely decent human being and having any sort of creative or artistic merit or agency.
The Phantom Thread arguably offers a new wrinkle to the artist-muse relationship, but one that does little to nothing in the way of untangling it from the antiquated implications or its narrative forerunners.
I really, really love so much about The Phantom Thread. It truly is a lovely dress. But through the sights and sounds of it all those old narrative bones still groan and creak.