This is in no small part thanks to the formidable cinematography (which was, officially, by nobody: director Paul Thomas Anderson worked as his own D.P., but he's been fastidious about clarifying that his camera and lighting crew did all the work, and don't we dare go around saying "cinematography by Paul Thomas Anderson"), which embraces the inherent qualities of physical film stock to a degree that I haven't seen in ages; not Christopher Nolan's ever-expanding insistence on using IMAX film for every shot he possibly can, not anything by stubborn physical traditionalists like Steven Spielberg or the Coen brothers, not even Anderson's own The Master, which was basically a completely different experience if you were lucky enough to see it in 70mm. Phantom Thread looks ever so slightly soft; the colors, even at their brightest, lack the sharp tang of most modern cinematography. It's a drop-dead gorgeous movie, with a blunt conservative edge to its beauty. This is elegant, stuffy, old-fashioned; it's the sort of thing where you could accurately describe it as "classy-looking" and every last insinuation of the word "classy" would apply.
This perfectly fits the content of the film, which is both a celebration of the fineness of old-fashioned craftsmanship, and a mildly disdainful, but mostly hands-off critique of the kind of people who would devote themselves body and soul to being thus old-fashioned. It is the story of Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), one of the great names in women's fashion, an indefatigable perfectionist, and a petulant ass to the woman who enter and exit his life in such a predictable rhythm that his sister/manager/secretary/babysitter Cyril (Lesley Manville) has a script all ready for how she shoves his live-in companions out the door. The latest of these is a shy, clumsy waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps), who first meets Woodcock as he orders several humans' worth of breakfast, and the main bulk of the narrative consists of her unusually successful attempts to cement herself into his life.
As much as Phantom Thread is about the figuratively and less-figuratively poisonous relationship between Woodcock and Alma, and the establishment of a love affair that is by any imaginable outside yardstick is grossly unhealthy, but seems to be fulfilling to both of them, it's not just that. This is maybe the most heavily, visibly crafted film of 2017, a celebration of the work of making movies wrapped inside a celebration of the work of making dresses. It's obsessively detail-oriented, making an almost literal fetish out of procedure: when Woodcock first measures Alma, the film lingers on extreme close-up of his hands and the measuring tape against her body, far out of proportion to the narrative pay-off of those shots. I'm not sure if the film most wants to evoke his feelings of erotic excitement at touch her, her excitement at being touch, or both of them all at once; but I am absolutely certain that the film is evoking eroticism of some sort. And it's not precisely sexual eroticism - it's not actually clear to me, from the evidence in the film, that the two ever share a bed or otherwise have sexual intercourse at all - but something more sensory, based on touch and sound.
Put it another way: this is a movie about wanting to fuck evening gowns. Something that the lighting, the framing, the editing, and the sound mixing all agree on, is that there is nothing more interesting in Phantom Thread than fabric: how it rustles, how it moves, how it reflects and absorbs light, and as much as can possibly be arranged in an artform that only engages two senses, how it feels. It is luxurious and sensual. And if fabric qua fabric is an obsession of the film, fabric that has been carefully shaped and cut and pieced together into dresses, specifically designed to accentuate those tactile qualities, is the subject of the film's worship. Or: if the film is about sex (and it fairly self-evidently is), repressed by the formality of 1950s English society, glamor shots of dresses are where the film has orgasms.
It would be trivial to say that Phantom Thread has amazing costumes, or even to say that it has the best costumes of the year; it needs to. As a matter of the plot functioning, the costumes need to be the most exquisite, sumptuous things. So lucky for the film that it does have them, so that Woodcock's single-minded fixation makes sense, and so that the film's lingering, detailed depictions of the act of designing and sewing can be as rapturous for us as for him.
That's the primary way that the film works because of its craftsmanship, but certainly not the only one: the cinematography, I've mentioned, adds a layer of chronological distance between the film and the viewer, while evoking the milieu of upper-class Londoners like nobody's business. Jonny Greenwood's score - his fourth for Anderson - is similar: while the modernist touches that made his music for There Will Be Blood and The Master so nervous and jarring aren't completely banished (the film opens on such a musical gesture), the great majority of the score is in a swoony, Romantic mood that perfectly evokes the mid-century soundtracks of the great Hollywood melodramas, a little clipped and formal, pulling a tiny bit from jazz and a whole lot from Franz Waxman.
So far, so posh and handsome and stately; but this is a Paul Thomas Anderson film, so there has to be a little bit more than that. And it comes from two very different directions. The expected on is that this is a little bit of a fucked-up movie about a substantially fucked-up man. Like The Master, it's a psychological study made up of innuendo and ellipsis and very amazing acting. That Day-Lewis, reuniting with his director ten years after There Will Be Blood, is phenomenal comes as no surprise. Still, it's a hell of a performance: one can easily imagine, say, the Jeremy Irons approach to the character, as a bunch of stern, steely barking, and Day-Lewis does move into that register sometimes. But he also spends a lot of the movie as a slightly goofy, tweedy man, too silly and shy for the viciousness that sparks out every now and then to feel natural. It's also not really much of a surprise that Manville, a Mike Leigh regular, should be so perfectly attuned to the undercurrents of her character (with all due respect to her co-stars, she's my favorite person here). Krieps is the revelation; she's been acting for years, but rarely in films with any significant visibility in the U.S., so this comes across very much like a "star is born" moment; her character is possibly the trickiest to get a grasp on anyway, twisting into dark places with much less grandiosity than Day-Lewis is permitted, and so it's more surprising when she gets there.
The unexpected twist on formula is that Phantom Thread is a hilarious movie: funnier than virtually any comedy I saw in 2017, though I don't think it's right to call the film a comedy in itself. It's full of dry, mean wit, of course: stuffy Brits saying withering things in beautifully-turned phrases. But it's also, at times, just plain wacky: Woodcock's eating habits provide an oddly rich running gag, and it speaks highly of everyone that the film's cranked-up sound mix can vary between inducing tension or inducing giggles, even within the same narrative beat. Turning a chilly psychosexual drama into a chamber comedy isn't necessarily revolutionary, but it certainly comes as a surprise here; Anderson's little way of taking the piss out of his own methodical re-creation of '50s melodrama, perhaps, and a sneaky way of reminding us to enjoy ourselves while plumbing the depths of domestic tension. It is, at any rate, easily enough for me to declare this the most pleasurable time I've ever had watching one of this director's films, and on top of its excellent aesthetic control, that's a hell of a combination.