A friend recalls that when Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2014 film Inherent Vice was to be shown to the media for the first time during the New York Film Festival, hacks were camping out in lawn chairs overnight to be assured a seat in the theater — for a film that, when it hit commercial movie theaters a few weeks later, turned out to be a tiresome dud.
Anderson’s new film, Phantom Thread, which hits theaters at Christmas, is likely to follow a similar trajectory: frenzied anticipation followed by widespread disappointment. Anderson’s problem is that he believes his own legend and keeps writing thematically askew, structurally lumpy, frustratingly unsettled films that earn him just enough hosannas from just enough critics to convince him that he should keep doing what he’s doing. He shouldn’t.
Phantom Thread, as its writer-director made clear in comments after the film was shown to industry types in New York on November 26, is Anderson’s idea of a love story. But it comes out more like a querulous mockery of that. The second half of the movie, as is often the case in Anderson’s world, seems designed to invite the audience to blow raspberries at the screen as they exit. “Feel-good” is not the sensation Anderson seeks to induce; more like, “Feel inclined to burn down the movie theater.” He is one of the most gifted filmmakers of his generation, but of that group, he is also the most frustrating.
In what the age’s greatest screen actor has declared will be his final film role, Daniel Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, an imperious, curt, and forbidding genius modeled after (among many others) the Spanish fashion designer Cristóbal Balenciaga. He makes finely tailored but somewhat fussy frocks for society ladies right in his London townhouse, where a platoon of seamstresses work for him under the eye of…