"Genius," wrote Baudelaire, "is no more than childhood recaptured at will." This was 168 years ago, before the popular conception of artistic genius could evolve into what it became by the middle of the 20th century: a condition midway between affliction and gift, by dint of which all human (and especially male) lapses—petulance, selfishness, social maladaptation, abuse—are forgiven by the magnificence of "the work."
(Of course, Baudelaire also died of syphilis at age 46, ensuring the permanence of his reputation as a genius.)
Things being the way they are now, in the early 21st century, when artistic genius has been radically devalued as an excuse for humans who mistreat other humans, it seemed clear that Paul Thomas Anderson's new film—the exquisitely perverse, perversely exquisite Phantom Thread—was steering toward a reevaluation, possibly even a whole-cloth renunciation of our collective genius myth.
I was ready for such a move, partly because I would happily watch Daniel Day-Lewis text for three hours if that's what he felt like doing. But also because Anderson has, after making a handful of films I seemed to be the only person who didn't like, become one of my favorites.
Anderson's audacious visual style is now matched by a moral intelligence and imagination that validate his ambition. In short, he became a good writer, whose last two films (The Master and Inherent Vice) seemed plugged into a rare seam of complex humanity.
Phantom Thread is about an impossibly elegant, impossibly fastidious, impossibly gifted, impossible-to-please man with the impossibly preposterous name Reynolds Jeremiah Woodcock (Day-Lewis), who makes exquisite ladies dresses—though he saves all the best clothes for himself—with the help of his enigmatic, protective sister Cyril (Lesley Manville).
Shortly after we meet him, he meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), a younger woman who comes to function alternately as his model, his muse, his love, his rival, his antagonist, his greatest regret, his wife, his nurturer, and, possibly, his murderer. He invites her into his world, and they embark on a relationship that threatens to destroy them both.
Designed with the elegance of a Max Ophüls film, written to combine the social observation of Henry James and the foreboding of Alfred Hitchcock, and scored with a narcotic elegance by Jonny Greenwood, Phantom Thread is about style—personal, professional, and social—as a constraint, and a means of consecrating one's misery.
But it's also funny. And its perspective, and therefore its power, is constantly shifting between the lovers.
And its style is captivating. By setting the story in postwar London's high fashion world—i.e., just before the birth of the loathsome industry called "fashion"—Anderson restricts his palette to vivid elegance, but that doesn't preclude audacious, allusive aesthetic choices.
During the crucial proposal scene, he uses the Goodfellas trick of pushing the camera forward while zooming out, so the composition of the shot—Reynolds and Alma in a Grecian urn–ish tableau—doesn't change, but the background does, almost imperceptibly. It's a great way of combining the internal and external, and to let you know that just because you think you know what you're looking at doesn't mean you have even the vaguest idea.
Even better, to highlight the irrational degree to which Alma's presence grates on Reynolds's nerves at breakfast, Anderson boosts the sound of her butter knife scraping the toast, her slorping of the muesli in the bowl, her teeth biting the spoon. In a lesser movie, such tricks would be used to make Reynolds's case for him. In this one, the sympathy is with Alma.
Day-Lewis and Anderson make an excellent team. Between the two of them—one a proper genius, the other a major talent who has been called a genius enough times to basically count as one in the grade-inflated reality of the internet world—I figured they'd find something interesting to say about the nature of genius, and the things that are demanded and granted in its name.
But that story has been told a million times. And its revelations are no more revealing than Baudelaire's truism. People who can recapture childhood at will tend to be babies. Which is exactly what Reynolds's demands make him—a fragile, inflexible baby who can't function unless everything is exactly how he needs it to be.
We wonder how long before Alma is going to see through the antique lacework of this behavioral dynamic and blaze.
But then the film takes a totally unforeseeable turn, toward the more common but also more important subject of actual love—which, in the cosmology of Phantom Thread, is defined as whatever two people need from each other, and the twisted path that leads them to identify and provide it.
And then you realize, or remember, that the world is both larger and smaller than we like to imagine it is.