The movie screen is thin and flat, silvery blue-white and flawless. Looking over its edge from above, we peer into a void, vast and endless. Magicians cast light upon this surface and conjure wonders, beckoning spectres to emerge from the endless abyss to dazzle and mystify us above from just below the surface of the screen.
Paul Thomas Anderson is one of these magicians. Some lesser magicians bring forth minor spirits – on good days, Punch and Judy puppets, but more often paper cutouts on sticks. Paul Thomas Anderson is a great magician. The characters he stirs up from beyond are magnificent, Platonic ideals, living psychic beasts in human form, not mere shadows on a cave wall. We peer at them, and they seem –almost! – to peer back at us. Most filmmakers deal in simplified men. PTA plays with gods.
In Phantom Thread, PTA’s latest, these are gods of Creative Will, Order, and Dependence. The stuff of the plot concerns a dressmaker in 1950s London who, for all his talent, opportunity, and renown, is frustratingly compelled to copulate. His name is Mr. Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis, oaken but with a soft core). He cycles through women who are too pliant, who bask in the glow of his fame and do not give anything in return other than to provide a place for him to spit invectives – spittoons of blame. Mr. Woodcock remains unmarried. He is haunted by his late mother.
He lives with his unmarried sister, Cyril (Leslie Manville, the picture of propriety). She lords over the affairs of his household, which doubles as a workspace, bossing around the women who sew for Mr. Woodcock and cleaning out the spittoons when they become too sullied. She reckons the prices that must be paid to maintain the order that makes Mr. Woodcock’s creativity possible. When he bucks, she reminds him of these costs and keeps him in line, ostensibly for his own good, perhaps for her own good as well. Perhaps not.
Mr. Woodcock brings a new woman into his world – ingénue Alma (Vicky Krieps, who, miraculously, proves up to the task assigned her by the screenplay – stealing the film). Like the others, she, at first, shines to Mr. Woodcock’s attention. He makes her feel beautiful, necessary, in-the-center-of-things. As before, his affections begin to drift away from her novelty and back to his work. Unlike the others, she does not wilt. They were mortals. She has the stuff of the Ideal in her, and so she swells in power to match that of Mr. Woodcock and Cyril. She becomes Nurturing, though doing so is costly to all, as care depends upon the existence of need. Dependence is mutual, whether the members of the household like it or not.
What is Paul Thomas Anderson up to here? As in his other films, he seems concerned not with the rightness of his Truths but with the fact of them. The point is to render them fully through the medium of the screen so that we might reflect upon them as their light bounces onto us. There is in each of us the potential of Creative Will. We are beholden to the need for Order. We try to be strong, but though it seems like safety, self-sufficiency is a shrinking, hardening velocity. Dependence opens us up, makes us soft, allows us to feel and breathe and live. It feels like death. It is a kind of death, but passing through the veil, death can bring new life. Few of us are that brave. We need guides, though they be otherworldly and disturbing, stirred up from the deep and looking out at us from the silver-sheened abyss, beckoning us into a new way to be. Phantom Thread is that kind of beckoning. Answer if you dare.