Trailers are meant to sell movies, but if anything, the dreadful two-minute preview for Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread is likely to send people running to any other screen. It's pretentious, weird and confusing; all but the most hardened arthouse film fans will have struggled to have become excited by it. Yet the film has garnered a string of awards nominations including one for the coveted Best Picture Oscar, and marks the (alleged) final performance of 'actor's actor' Daniel Day-Lewis. So what gives? Is it a masterpiece or a mess? Is it a bizarre indulgence or the extraordinary product of a collaboration between geniuses?
It's hard to deny that the film certainly has an arthouse tone. The pace is deliberately slow throughout, the dialogue sparing and often delayed. The classical soundtrack is simple and often consists only of delicately-played piano keys. The script revolves around an unpleasant character who speaks unnaturally. It's all a bit weird, and tense.
This is an ambiguous description, but there's certainly never been a film quite like this one. The plot, which on paper is as thin as the exotic lace used by DDL's central dressmaker character, follows the relationship between the genius and his latest muse (Vicky Krieps) as they make high-end dresses and fall in love in the 1950s. Or at least, that's what it appears to be about at first glance. A little detail of the story reveals that Reynolds loves to secrete little hidden messages within the lining of the garments he creates, and that's a perfect metaphor for the film. Director Anderson has so much more going on beneath the surface, and in almost every scene.
Because in spite of all of the above, and all you might imagine would make the film a hard or impenetrable watch, Phantom Thread is actually a masterpiece. Anderson has woven together strangeness and simplicity to create a remarkable piece of cinema, and while it might sound a little pretentious to say so, a bona fide work of art. Almost every shot of the film is so perfectly and painstakingly staged that they're like classic paintings; some – such as a theatrical New Year's Eve party are actually breathtaking. The experience of watching it is sometimes a little akin to walking round a fine art gallery.
At the heart of the film, Day-Lewis is so mesmerising that you can almost hear the sound of a million film fans begging him to reconsider his retirement. As the fictional designer Reynolds Woodcock, he defies the laws of film-making by being singularly unlikeable and yet constantly compelling to watch. He's a genius but also a monster (an accusation that's occasionally been thrown at Day-Lewis himself on set), and not for the first time in the actor's career, a character we've never seen before. He's well supported by Krieps and Lesley Manville – as the stony-faced sister who rules the 'House of Woodcock' with an iron fist – but this is undeniably DDL's film.
Anderson and Day-Lewis worked together previously on There Will Be Blood, as two parts of a trinity of geniuses which included composer Jonny Greenwood, who makes another incredible contribution here. His soundtrack, a mix of string symphonies and a wonderfully disturbing central theme, should make a huge challenge at this month's Oscars – in keeping with the rest of the film it is both strange and magnificent. In fact the soundscape of the whole film is awards-worthy; Anderson expertly uses silence and punctuates it only with sounds that have a part to play in the story. Believe it or not, the film includes probably the most profound use of crunchy toast ever seen on screen.
Phantom Thread not only features a deliberate absence of God (the film's only wedding scene purposefully takes place in an overtly-secular registry office), but perhaps even presents a worldview that could be described as anti-Christian. Not in the fact that it verbally rejects God, but because the characters subscribe to a view of love and personal character that is the total antithesis of the Christian perspective. In fact, without giving too much of the jarring plot away, it might be described as an anti-love story. The characters purport to be in love, but it's not a version of love or marriage with which those with a Christian morality of mutual submission would hopefully identify. In a bizarre sense, it may even share some thematic DNA with the about-to-be-released Fifty Shades Freed, which also attempts to redeem its characters through redefining the boundaries of apparently loving relationships.
The characters, and their moral choices, are ever so slightly twisted. That doesn't, however make it a film that Christians should avoid, or even dislike. I found David Robertson's recent take on the superb Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri a little bizarre (his suggestion being that its characters' moral repugnance made it a 'good film to hate'), because just as in Phantom Thread, there is so much beauty to admire. In a recent interview about the latter movie, Krieps said that 'Paul [Thomas Anderson] created an atmosphere that was so silent and still, it was almost holy – like a church.' The film might not invoke God at all, but it creates a sense of reverence; such moments of awe and wonder that the experience of watching it is profoundly spiritual. Those who find God in nature, beauty and silence will find plenty of him here.
It's a shame that the trailer was so un-compelling, and that may explain why the film has so far performed so poorly at the box office. Yet perhaps it is a movie that simply cannot be summed up in anything less than its full experience; not by a trailer, not by a review. I can only urge you to go and see it in a (preferably empty) cinema. Phantom Thread might be strange, and a little long, and slow, and quiet. Yet in spite – and indeed because – of all that, it's absolutely gripping throughout. Like the 50 bespoke dresses that were created for the film, it's nothing less than a beautiful work of art.
Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. Follow him on Twitter@martinsaunders.