Grand Prix - Best Film of 2018

in 66th San Sebastian International Film Festival

by Manu Yanez

Hypnotic And Atonal Movie Symphonies
On “Phantom Thread” (Paul Thomas Anderson)
By Manu Yáñez

If “Boogie Nights” was a Scorsesian carousel and “Magnolia” a Cassavetian roller-coaster, if “Punch-Drunk Love” was a Minellian-Lynchian stream and “There Will Be Blood” a Kubrickian-Wellesian monolith, if “The Master” opened with some Hitckcockian spirals and “Inherent Vice” draw a Pynchonian labyrinth, how could one typify the new Paul Thomas Anderson film, “Phantom Thread”? What if we could imagine it as a vine? What if, as suggested by the Collins dictionary, this was a movie which “creeps along the ground or climbs by clinging to a support”? What if, in its eagerness to expand its bittersweet venom, “Phantom Thread” were everywhere and nowhere at once, as its spectral title seems to suggest? How could we characterize a film too febrile and dissonant (thanks, Jonny Greenwood) to be considered strictly classical, too original to be labeled as postmodern, too anti-chic and harmonious (thanks, Jonny Greenwood!) to be considered “modern”? With its twining stem, its devotional spirit and its attachment to superstitions, “Phantom Thread” tangles itself around Planet Cinema while inviting us to lose our marbles and hold on to our seat.

It’s been a while since Anderson’s movies renounced to instigate our empathy and require our sentimental surrender. In this sense, it may make sense to imagine “Phantom Thread’s” Reynolds Jeremiah Woodcock as a doppelgänger for Anderson himself, a filmmaker reborn after discovering History’s weight with “There Will Be Blood”, an artist fully aware of (and maybe also distressed by) his own grandeur, an auteur liberated of any sort of compromise towards his masters or his audience, which cannot but fall entranced under his hypnotic and atonal movie symphonies (thanks, Jonny Greenwood!!). At his best, Anderson sets his (high) standard far from the common places: Who would’ve imagined that in his movie-about-the-London-fashion-world-of-the-50s the mirrors would play such a secondary role, when his first movies easily derided to the Scorsesian cliché of the confession in front of a mirror? On the other hand, avoiding the siren’s song of the symbolic narrative, “Phantom Thread” studies human desires and torments through an obsessive and materialistic observation of every inch of fabric, skin and frame: what a resounding achievement for a movie about textile topstitches and romantic backstitches!

At his best, Anderson knows how to find a direct, physical (and lyrical) way to concretize his characters’ streams of love and affliction. Reynold’s perennial mourning finds a sublime figuration in the resigned way he points out to his object of desire that he is carrying his dead mother’s name hidden between the pleats of his shirt, “close to the heart”. Though my favorite idea from “Phantom Thread” is the shape and use of Reynolds’ working glasses, objects which gain prominence during the silent breakfasts the artist “shares” with his nearest and dearest. Nothing illustrates with more loquacity Reynolds’ authoritarian spirit and sharp expression than those arched frames, which encircle – from the corner of each eye to the ears – the artist’s stern skull. Woodcock’s flesh and bones become a straight line, and everything else – clothes, walls, other human beings or the glasses’ frames – must bend and leave room for the creator’s performance. “I make dresses”, affirms Reynolds emulating, with an extra dose of self-sufficiency, John Ford’s “I make westerns”, while his disdain and outbursts of affection evoke a civilized evolution of the Daniel Plainview of “There Will Be Blood”.

If Daniel Day-Lewis ends up keeping his retirement threat, his incarnation of Reynolds Woodcock will remain as the peak of a magical communion between filmmaker and performer. Only the late Philip Seymour Hoffman could dispute Day-Lewis’ reign as the “best enunciator of Anderson’s intuitions”. Built upon continuous crescendos and decrescendos, Anderson’s cinema tends to use, as a narrative pattern, the notion of  intuition which turns into an idea that later hatches out into an action (a subtle and powerful process that Christopher Nolan adopted as the central theme of his flashy Inception). There we have Frank T.J. Mackey’s mute stare (Tom Cruise at the top of his game) while losing his cynical shield in “Magnolia”, Barry Egan’s physical and existential zigzagging (meta-Adam Sandler) while love conquers his soul in “Punch-Drunk Love”, the oblique gazes exchanged by Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman) in their first meetings in “The Master”, the birth of mistrust against his “brother” in the corner of Daniel Plainview’s eyes in “There Will Be Blood”, and finally Reynolds’ love awakening at the seaside cafeteria in “Phantom Thread” (bright halo included), which is answered back by the awakening of resentment on a honeymoon turned into nightmare. In a less than subtle way, Anderson uses these outpourings of intuitive thinking to suspend the action and then rush it into a spectacle of emotions: a narrative strategy which, far from order and premeditation, creates a permanent state of uncertainty and dramatic revelation, delimited by breathtaking openings and grand finales, estranged by touching and melancholic voice overs.

It’s just slightly worrisome that in a movie built upon the characters’ containment and constriction – behold the disciplined work of Vicky Krieps as Alma, Reynolds’ object of desire – Anderson keeps returning to the confrontational fireworks that exploded in the animalistic disputes between Freddie and Lancaster in “The Master”. On the other hand, the stunning image of Reynolds’ profile sketched out against the Swiss Alps (as if Spielberg’s Lincoln had found its own Mount Rushmore) suffers from a certain decorative excess, when since the use of 70mm for “The Master”, Anderson only needs a face in close up, sometimes possessed by a sort of Expressionistic rapture, to conquer landscape cinema. In the end, the remains of Anderson’s visceral condition, combined with the vine-ish nature of “Phantom Thread”, give shape to a movie filled with myths and totemic figures: Oedipus and Pigmalion, the Hitchcockian housekeeper reincarnated in Reynolds’ sister (a terrific Lesley Manville, the only actor who earns the right to look at the camera several times), the shadow of “Vertigo”’s Scotty chiseling au naturel his lover’s image, and the heritage of Shakespeare and Bergman both in a hair-raising, heart-rending phantasmagorical apparition, and in the characters’ vindictive desires and the story’s tragic-romantic trails (all of this pointing to Max Ophüls and David Lean).

In the end, the truer expression of the vine-ish nature of  “Phantom Thread” arrives with an unexpected twist towards the forms and mechanisms of the classical Hollywood comedies. Without going into further detail, it must be said that the relationship between Reynolds and Alma is haunted by the mutual acknowledgement of the other’s fallibility, in a sense not distant from the amoral romanticism explored, for instance, in Ernst Lubitsch’s “Trouble in Paradise”. Anyone who keeps as a cinephile treasure the first encounter between the thieves Lily (Miriam Hopkins) and Gaston (Herbert Marshall) in a Venetian hotel, where the couple exchange all sorts of mutually robbed goods, will have the right yardstick to measure the twisted complicity between “Phantom Thread”’s lovers. What a surprising and sharp way to thread the ending of this overwhelming movie, which invites us to prolong our idyll with the most unreachable of “our” filmmakers.

By Manu Yáñez, edited by Amber Wilkinson. A Spanish-language version of this text is available here: