Classics of the New Millennium: "Phantom Thread" (2017) with guest critic Hunter Harris

The "Hung Up" writer and I compare notes on the incomparable Paul Thomas Anderson film about a great and poisonous romance.

Classics of the New Millennium: "Phantom Thread" (2017) with guest critic Hunter Harris

This was a delight: A deep-dish discussion of one of my favorite films of all time with one of my favorite young critics. Hunter Harris has written for GQ, New York magazine’s Vulture, and the New York Times, but it’s her pop culture newsletter “Hung Up” and its associated social media tendrils that had Forbes recently name Harris to its “30 Under 30” list of media up-and-comers. “Hung Up” has the energy and smarts of heyday-era Entertainment Weekly, a laugh-out-loud wit, and one of the best bullshit meters in the business, and for a sixty-something critic who fell off the back of the zeitgeist truck ages ago, it’s a bulletin from the front lines of entertainment culture that doubles as a cheat sheet for alter kockers.

Up to now, Hunter and I have mostly waved at each other in passing from across the Internet, but it turns out we both stan for the same Paul Thomas Anderson movie, the elegantly subversive, almost unbearably beautiful “Phantom Thread.” Because the film was billed as Daniel Day-Lewis’s final screen performance — as Reynolds Woodcock, a couturier in 1950s London who has a power-play love affair with his muse and model Alma, played by Vicky Krieps — it attracted a larger and perhaps more mainstream audience than is usual for PTA. That audience seemed baffled by a romantic melodrama that’s actually a dark comedy in disguise — a love story about two people who seemingly want to kill each other. That “Phantom Thread” plays these games under a veneer of the most luxuriant cinematic craft imaginable (the dresses! the camerawork! that score!) is part of its pleasure and definitely part of the joke.

As I wrote in my 2017 Boston Globe review, “At the heart of ‘Phantom Thread’ is a dance between two difficult people, embodied by a pair of actors at the absolute top of their game. Day-Lewis is an acknowledged alchemist, and Reynolds — foppish, temperamental, gifted, insecure — is a dazzlingly complete creation. That said, the generosity with which he allows Krieps to serve as the film’s center is remarkable and rewarded. The Luxembourg-born actress, a 10-year veteran of European film and TV, charts every subtle step of Alma’s transformation, from meekness to a godlike serenity that’s only a little terrifying.”

Factor in Lesley Manville’s Oscar-nominated performance as Reynolds’ officious sister Cyril — gatekeeper of both the House of Woodcock and her brother’s island of breakfast calm — and the echoes of such classics as Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” and “Phantom Thread” is an experience so lush that it teeters on the edge of the absurd. It’s rare and great fun when you get to talk about something you love with someone who knows and loves it as much as you do, and this week’s “Classics of the New Millennium” episode finds my guest and me wandering all over the force field of this remarkable piece of cinema. Is Barbara Rose (Harriet Sansom Harris), the drunken heiress deemed unworthy of a Woodcock gown, a figure of mockery or the film’s most tragic character? Are the (Oscar-winning) dresses high art or the high bourgeoisie’s idea of same? Is Alma a strong-minded heroine or a delusional psychotic? Do she and Reynolds deserve each other? Would anyone else have them? Come listen in as Harris and I untangle the warp and weft of “Phantom Thread.”

N.B. The movie is currently streaming on Netflix and for VOD rental on all the usual platforms. This podcast is also available on video on YouTube, with film clips. Audio-only listeners won’t be able to see the well-known photo of author Vladimir Nabokov with his wife Vera that I compare in the podcast to a shot in “Phantom Thread,” so I offer it to you here as a hint to the movie’s possible antecedents and gamesmanship.


Thanks for listening! Have any thoughts? Want to suggest a movie for this series? Don’t hesitate to weigh in.

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