Phantom Thread ★★★½

[7]

I think that, with the notable recent exception of Inherent Vice, the recent work of Paul Thomas Anderson has been frustratingly masterful, a bit too deliberate, and overly thesis-driven for my personal taste. Phantom Thread is a gorgeous viewing experience, and from moment to moment I found myself able to fixate on this bit of acting, or that highly detailed corner of the mise en scène, pleasures well in excess of the film's overt narrative function. But once it started honing in on its conclusion, I felt oddly discomfitted, as if a wide array of possibilities were being driven rather deterministically down a single interpretive funnel.

Some will argue that this is precisely the nature of narrative time. We don't know what's going to happen, so anything can happen, and over time, only a select few things can happen, and eventually only that last, final gesture. But with Anderson, there is a stifling sense that the questions about who precisely Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is, what drives him, and how he negotiates between beauty and absolute discipline, have always had very definite answers. What's more, the manner in which Alma (Vicky Krieps) forces him out of his comfort zone is so extreme -- more than once I thought of Maggie Gyllenhaal's character in Secretary as an early prototype for Alma -- that even her passionate extravagances seem almost theoretical, the demonstration of a Hegelian dialectic on a chalkboard made of flesh.

Granted, unleashing Woodcock's desire is akin to dislodging a boulder, and so perhaps extreme measures are necessary. With his older sister (Leslie Manville) keeping the larger world at bay, Woodcock has only become more sedimented. But it was perhaps the scene with the doctor, when Alma and Cyril are speaking the same words, that Anderson's design came into sharpest focus. In order to move Reynolds, Alma would have to move Cyril, since their relationship had become sexlessly perverse. (Alma wanted to have a similar control over Reynolds, but infuse it with sexual desire.)

A film so perfectly wrought should be appreciated fully, placed in a showcase like an emerald and given the most flattering light for display. I do feel that my qualms about Phantom Thread are somewhat churlish and uncharitable, considering how sumptuous it is. What's more, Anderson has made a film that is "thematically correct." This is an artwork about conservative couture, a kind of classical beauty that is timeless and does not succumb to the trends of the moment. If it feels a bit stuffy and overdetermined, this reflects the artistry that Anderson has built into his lead character and his world.

All the same, Phantom Thread seems oddly hermetic, unable to break out of its own perfection and touch down in a palpable world of emotion. It cannot surprise; it can only fulfill its destiny. Much like There Will Be Blood and especially The Master, it is a perfect rendering of its own trajectory, so much so that it feels entirely self-sufficient.