Reel Dad: Phantom Thread captivates with its emotional complexity

He designs his clothes with as much understanding of the women who wear what he creates as the materials he reaches for. While this renowned fashion designer thrives with ease in his professional life, he struggles to achieve the same success in his relationships. Only with his sister does he manage to sustain some type of connection. But that bond has its complexities.

With Phantom Thread, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson effortlessly glides through the world of high fashion of the 1950s with the same ease as when he invaded the oil fields of California in There Will Be Blood and its beaches in Inherent Vice. As with each of his films, Anderson paints a complex world that we want to visit but could never inhabit. He establishes an emotional claustrophobia that can overwhelm the weak, confuse the strong, and enable the manipulative to play with others. In Phantom Thread, Anderson weaves a web of dysfunction far more intricate than any pattern his designer may use for one of his dresses.

In the film, Reynolds Woodcock lives a glamorous life. As an in-demand couturier, he counts among his clients the most demanding of women who travel in the highest of circles. Nothing is left to chance in this intricate world, no look, no touch. Woodcock succeeds because he connects with what his women need to wear on the outside and how they must feel inside. But, away from his work, he chooses to be distant, aloof, at times uncaring. And if a lady tries to get too close, he leaves it to his sister to break things off. The designer can’t be bothered. Yes, he may make the clothes in his work but, for his life, he can’t care beyond the surface. Everything changes, though, when a vivacious young woman crosses his path and starts him on an emotional roller coaster ride he could never imagine.

What’s marvelous about Phantom Thread, beyond its meticulous look, is how Anderson dissects the emotional layers below the surface. As each character tries to hide what they feel, with the clothes they wear or the makeup they apply, Anderson forces them to reveal their intentions, from the sister’s need to control, the new lover’s hunger to manipulate, the designer’s demand for commitment. As detailed as the stitches in the clothing may be, the story emerges from the complexities of the people who make and wear the designs and the emptiness they feel once the dresses return to their closets.

Visually, the movie is exquisite, with Anderson capturing the nuance of upper class London as effortlessly as in any of his films. But he doesn’t rely on his visual command to tell his emotional story. Even within the confines of a society well defined, Anderson finds his way to the emotional core of people who fail to recognize what they need as they let themselves be comforted by how good they can look. Anderson reveals what can be quite ugly inside people who can look quite beautiful.

In Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson dares to challenge what we think as effectively as he thrills to delight what we see. The movie fits. Perfectly.

Film Nutritional Value: Phantom Thread

  • Content: High. How people look for truth in relationships becomes a meaningful journey for anyone searching for a sense of fashion.
  • Entertainment: High. While the story may sound thin, it’s filled with humanity and humor as writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson creates an emotional roller coaster.
  • Message: High. No matter what relationships may matter, the film reminds us what we must reveal to connect with people we need and love.
  • Relevance: High. Any opportunity for parents and older children to explore the intricacies of relationships can prompt meaningful conversation.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: High. Share this film with your older children as an opening to discuss how, each day, people try to connect in all kinds of ways.

Phantom Thread is rated R for language. The film runs 2 hours, 10 minutes. 5 Popcorn Buckets.

Inherent Vice explores the hunger for escape

Yes, Paul Thomas Anderson has a sense of humor.

And this writer/director of Phantom Thread, and other serious films, does like to laugh.

After creating one absorbing drama after another — from Magnolia to The Master to Phantom Thread — he reminds us how funny he can be when he chooses to chill. With the irreverent Inherent Vice, from 2014, this director in search of meaning entertains his way through the Southern California idiosyncrasies of the early 1970s. Without the weight of a heavy message, or the burden to inspire tears, Anderson lite reminds us how much movie he can make because he knows how to tell a story, even one as unconventional as this look at the darker side of Los Angeles.

Anderson’s steady hand rewinds more than 40 years to those sordid moments when people embittered by Vietnam and threatened by Manson search for escape in all the wrong places. Doc — beautifully etched by Joaquin Phoenix — is everyone’s favorite private eye with a heart of gold, a craving for illegal substances and a conscience to save people. His life is littered with souls he tries to salvage, from an ex-girlfriend who chooses the wrong men, to a sometimes-girlfriend struggling with commitment to a grizzly cop with layers of anger. Doc is a cinema descendant of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon or J.J. Gittes in Chinatown, a cynical poet who sees through follies. And when he compares himself to the fools he encounters, he puts himself at the top of the list. He knows a man can be too smart for his own good.

“As I adapted the book, I was fascinated how the profound could mix with the silly,” Anderson shared at a question-and-answer following the film’s screening at the New York Film Festival. “While I try to be faithful to the words, I am an interpreter in a different medium.”

With an emphasis on character over plot, Anderson captures the rhythm Thomas Pynchon brings to the novel without trying to recreate what specifically works on the page. Instead Anderson uses Pynchon’s view as a starting point to explore why people try to escape. In a film where everyone seems to be running from something — a challenging relationship, an inconvenient commitment, an occasional hitman — Anderson reveals the unusual destinations they may choose, from the private eye’s office in a medical suite to the haven for a most unusual dentist (beautifully etched by Martin Short) to a pristine hideaway for troubled souls. No matter where they may run, however, these lost men and women look to Doc for reassurance, as if this most troubled of souls can provide relief. Or perhaps they trust because is the only one resigned to stay just where he is.

While this is not a film for the entire family, adults who love movies will be fascinated. Cinematographer Robert Elswit perfectly captures the look of early 1970s film as he leaves every scratch on the screen in beautiful 35mm. Production designer David Crank – without pursuing parody — displays the extreme look of the period in his sets while the costumes by Mark Bridges captures every potential cliché with his strategic use of paisley. Their work helps Anderson visualize the fear that fuels a need to run. No matter how exaggerated the characters may be, he makes us believe they sincerely struggle with their self-induced chaos as they hope to find a way to jump over the fences they build for themselves.

In each film, Anderson explores the souls of people who get through a day by hoping that something may take them away. While we know he can tell such a story with dramatic tones, Inherent Vice confirms that, when he gets tickled, Anderson still knows what he wants to say. Just as he does with Phantom Thread.

Inherent Vice is Rated R for drug use, sexual content, nudity, language and some violence. The film runs 148 minutes. It is available online for streaming and on DVD.


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