Because of his reputation as a formalist & a high-brow intellect, people often overlook a very important aspect of Paul Thomas Anderson’s work, even when heaping on praise: he’s damn funny. This may be because the humor in PTA’s movies is usually coated with a thick grime of terrifying, soul-destroying bitterness. For instance, it’s difficult to describe the humor of Daniel Day-Lewis threatening to slit a stranger’s throat in There Will be Blood or Phillip Seymour Hoffman shouting “pig-Fuck!” in The Master, but those moments are indeed amusingly intense. Anderson’s latest, Phantom Thread, is a wonderful feature-length continuation of this tradition. It may take audiences a few minutes to defrost from the expectation of watching an Important, Oscar-Worthy Drama to realize it, but Phantom Thread really is a wickedly funny movie, the perfect encapsulation of PTA’s bitter, hubristic humor. Detailing the power dynamics of a dangerously tense long-term relationship between a 1950s Londoner dressmaker and his waitress-turned-muse, you might be tempted to assume the film is a tragically dour period piece with little patience for silliness. Instead, Daniel Day-Lewis & relative newcomer Vicky Krieps verbally spar in a nonstop comedic assault for the full two-hour runtime. The film still excels as a gorgeous, meticulously crafted period piece with dead serious things to say about power dynamic struggles in artist-muse romantic relationships; it just does so while making you laugh in wholly unexpected ways at every twisted turn in its intimate, absurdly well-mannered narrative. Paul Thomas Anderson has certainly been funny before, but never at this duration or consistency.
Reynolds Woodcock is sure to be remembered as one of the greater, more intense characters ever performed onscreen, a name as iconic as Norman Bates or Rupert Pupkin or, appropriately enough, Daniel Plainview. Daniel Day-Lewis plays the renowned dressmaker with the delicate, careful darkness of Werner Herzog’s speaking voice. Having let the praise for his (admittedly gorgeous) dress designs go to his head, Woodcock has devolved into an insufferable twerp who demands that the army of women who actually put in the labor to make his business functional (including a rotating cast of muses-du-jour) bend to his every whim at a moment’s notice. Phantom Thread flirts with the thematic possibilities of championing the unnoticed work of the women whom Woodcock steamrolls or parsing out exactly what he means when he describes himself as an “incurable confirmed bachelor.” Mostly, though, it just has a quiet laugh at the tension his function as a tyrannical drama queen generates in a house of women who do not have the power to tell him “No.” This dynamic shifts when his latest muse, Alma (Krieps), refuses to be steamrolled along with the rest and defiantly intends to treat Woodcock like the “spoiled little baby” he truly is. From then on, the movie details a three-way power struggle within the Woodcock household (Lesley Manville holds down the third corner as Reynold’s deliciously icy sister, Cyril), with everyone involved seemingly getting perverted pleasure out of the clash, regardless of their overly dramatic complaints. Despite his delicate, mannered exterior, Woodcock drives, eats, and structures his romances like a thrill-seeking maniac. It turns out he enjoys having his hubristic displays of power challenged, though, something no woman in his life had ever dared to do before Alma (besides his cutthroat, no-bullshit sister). Through that challenge they build a curiously violent, deceptively well-balanced life together.
You may be able to find a better version of this kind of tragically classy romance in an Alfred Hitchcock or Douglas Sirk picture. The Love Witch may be a flashier attempt at a playfully fashionable period pastiche with strong feminist themes. mother! may offer a more convincingly absurdist critique of artist-muse relationship dynamics. The Duke of Burgundy may be a more immersively gorgeous, cheekily fun examination of power struggles in a kinkily-mannered long-term romance. What Phantom Thread offers that resists comparison to other works is a very particular sense of humor distinct to Anderson’s collaborative energy with Day-Lewis. It’s difficult to describe why Woodcock peering menacingly over his glasses or the way PTA substitutes food for sex in this picture are so wickedly amusing; I actually suspect a lot of people won’t see it that way at all, given the subjective nature of humor. If you enter Phantom Thread looking for a modernist critique of the tyrannical Troubled Artist type set against a visually interesting backdrop & a sweeping, classy score (from fellow frequent PTA collaborator & Radiohead vet Jonny Greenwood), the movie is more than happy to oblige you. If you’re not laughing through the tension of the weaponized “polite” exchanges between Reynolds, Alma, and Cyril Woodcock, though, I’m not sure you’re fully appreciating what the movie is offering. This really is one of the finest comedies I’ve seen in a while. It has a wickedly peculiar, distinct sense of humor to it that you won’t find in many other features, a comedic tone Reynolds himself would likely describe as “a little naughty.” Just pray you don’t find yourself in a dead silent audience of intellectuals hellbent on taking every detail of that naughtiness seriously.