I can’t remember the last time there were so many movies out at once that I’ve really wanted to see. I still need to see Loveless, Hostiles and I, Tonya. I’m also looking forward to seeing Annihilation, You Were Never Really Here, and Solo: A Star Wars Story, which come out very soon. I’m confident I’ll enjoy them all. So far the only movies I’ve had the time to see are Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri and Phantom Thread. The former was good, the latter was better. And it’s the latter of those two films that’s inspired me to blog today.
At first glance, Phantom Thread didn’t look to be my kind of film. It’s set in the couture business of 1950s London. It’s a romantic period drama about a fancy dressmaker who makes fancy dresses for the fancypants people of high society. The kind of movies I usually watch tend to have a higher density of people face down in a gutter drowning on their own blood. But then I noticed something: this film starred Daniel Day-Lewis and was directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. The last time these two hooked up we were given a brutal drama set against the harsh backdrop of the Southern California Oil Boom, ending with the unforgettable image of a preacher getting his head caved in with a bowling pin. There Will Be Blood is a contender for my favorite film of all time, so I knew I had to give this a go.
And Phantom Thread did not disappoint.
It’s a slow, meditative drama that’s admittedly not for everyone. But what really makes this film is the intensity of the performances from its two leading actors. Daniel Day-Lewis demonstrates yet again that he is the most talented and versatile actor of his generation, and he brings this absolutely dominating screen presence that turns even the most subtle scene into a hair-raising, edge-of-your-seat affair. You can feel the goosepimples crawling up your arms every time he does something as seemingly mundane as giving his opposite number a closed-mouth glare. And as good as Day-Lewis is, I thought that his co-star Vicky Krieps was right there with him. She matched his raw intensity and produced one of the most powerful performances I’ve seen in years.
Day-Lewis plays a famed dressmaker, and Krieps a waitress who sort of becomes his mistress and his muse. He’s wholly dedicated to his art, but Krieps is determined to have a piece of him for herself. The movie essentially follows her attempts to have a relationship with him- one that she gets something out of. She doesn’t want to ruin his art, or stop him from making dresses, but she just wants a little piece of him that is hers and hers alone. The film is a fascinating portrayal of the struggles of having a relationship with an artist. Day-Lewis is kind of a narcissistic- yet brilliant- genius, but Krieps has a profound effect on him, and ultimately he is shocked at how she changes his life and completely disrupts his routine.
Phantom Thread reminded me a lot of another film I watched recently. The other week I finally got around to watching the 2013 documentary Salinger. Funnily enough, Salinger was originally meant to be a feature film with Daniel Day-Lewis in the starring role. In Phantom Thread, Day-Lewis’ character is very particular, adhering to a strict and exact sense of routine. His every waking day, his every living breath, is dedicated to the art of dressmaking. And it pushes anyone away from getting too close. There’s no room in his life for intimacy; everyone comes second to his art. And it’s this aspect of the film that reminded me of Salerno’s documentary of one of my favorite writers- JD Salinger. The film portrays the novelist as being so obsessed with his art that it pushes away his wife; he would supposedly spend weeks at a time writing inside a windowless bunker, which neither she or anyone else was allowed in. Both movies seem to raise the question: is that lack of intimacy the price one pays for achieving true, lasting greatness? Can you live a normal life and be dedicated to your art? What are you willing to sacrifice for immortality? The most touching part of the documentary, for me, was a reported quote from Salinger to the effect that he wished he had never written The Catcher in the Rye. It made me sad, because it suggested to me that perhaps he wished he had lived a more normal life, without all the media scrutiny and the burden of being America’s greatest novelist.
Phantom Thread, however, ends on a much more optimistic note. In the end, Day-Lewis and Krieps have found a way to make it work. Theirs is a dark love in which he willingly allows her to feed him poisonous mushrooms so that he becomes so ill that he is completely dependent on her. It’s a crazy kind of passion, but then genius often comes hand in hand with madness. Despite all the difficulties of living in his world, she is determined to make a place for herself- and that’s what makes Krieps’ character so compelling.