The Lush Sound And Shattering Silence Of Phantom Thread
Jonny Greenwood's Oscar-nominated score lends Paul Thomas Anderson's latest an eerie pallor
If you were to watch the trailer for Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Phantom Thread without ever having heard a good word about it, you might assume that it is a stately period drama about a man and a woman and many beautiful, beautiful dresses. Anyone familiar with Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis’ track record together would know what they’re really in for, but the way Anderson plays with those assumptions is pointed, and one can’t help but appreciate how droll the whole thing seems until you’re sitting in a theater experiencing what is truly one of the very best and baffling films of 2017. Phantom Thread maintains an illusion of being an exceptionally boring film for all of about five seconds, when the opening theme, scored by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, soundtracks the title card. It’s all eerie, pitchy high strings that sounds equal-parts funerary and frantic; like you’re on your way to the gallows but instead of dragging your feet to get there you’re charging ahead.
Greenwood’s score is up for an Oscar this year. It’s his first nomination, though he recorded scores for Anderson’s recent projects, among them There Will Be Blood (2007), The Master (2012), and Inherent Vice (2014). The Phantom Thread score stands apart in that it lends an emotional tone to a film that lacks any sentimentality. Set in 1950s London, Phantom Thread follows Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock, a dandy fashion designer who makes elegant gowns for high-society ladies. He’s a controlling man whose unpleasant demeanor pales in comparison to that of his sister Cyril, played by a steely Lesley Manville. As we learn from the opening moments of the film, Reynolds brings other women into his life as muses, only to excommunicate them when they begin to show signs of “neediness.” Order is all Reynolds truly cares for; it allows him to make his art in an environment that is unchanging day in and out. When he takes on the headstrong Alma (Vicky Krieps) as his new lover, her inability to happily settle into the background of his life threatens to tear the regimented House Of Woodcock down.
Admittedly, I didn’t pay much attention to Greenwood’s score when I first saw Phantom Thread. I was too focused on moments of near-silence, which dominate every confrontational performance between Day-Lewis and Krieps. The dining scenes — of which there are many — carry the most tension and generally lack any soundtracking whatsoever. When Alma joins Reynolds and Cyril for breakfast at his London home, she stirs her tea and butters an especially crunchy piece of toast, which leads Reynolds to tell her that she’s essentially ruined his entire day by eating breakfast too loudly. Reynolds prefers all aspects of his environment to be to his particular liking, regulated by his unusually attentive sister, who scolds Alma for her misstep. The first time I saw the film in theaters, the audience cackled during those scenes, pleased to watch Reynolds’ overblown annoyance with his partner, a woman who does absolutely everything in her power to make him happy. We know that he will never like her too much because she butters her toast with such vigor.
Those confrontations all seem like very small infractions, casualties in any relationship. But the lack of any musical backing during those moments heightens the tension and interrupts the measured waltz that soundtracks Reynolds’ meticulous life. Yesterday, when I attended a screening of Phantom Thread at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music (BAM) with a live score, performed by leading members of the London Contemporary Orchestra (who recorded the OST) as well as New York’s own Wordless Music Orchestra, my awareness of that quietude peaked. This is almost entirely due to the fact that the orchestra was seated directly in front of me, and I had the unique opportunity to either stare at a screen or stare at the violin section. My attention flit between the two and I developed a sincere appreciation for Greenwood’s creation, as it further elevates the innate beauty of Reynolds’ couture world while simultaneously hinting at his cruelty.
The Phantom Thread score spans 18 tracks total; there is so much music in the film that the arrangements almost become another character, an emotional narrator to accompany Alma through this rather strange and extremely pretty universe. While there are full-blown orchestral swells interspersed throughout, many of the pieces rely on piano and little else. Katherine Tinker, the pianist featured on the original score who joined the orchestra at BAM yesterday, performs with a quiet grace that is lovely and sincere and still somehow unsettling. The film’s theme, which appears four times with various embellishments added to each version, is in one iteration fragile like the lace bodice of a wedding gown and in another undeniably foreboding. When Reynolds and Alma take a stroll along the rugged cliffs close to the township his country house resides in, a simple if not slightly creepy piano arrangement accompanies them. The scenery evokes the deadened British romanticism of a Brontë novel, a comparison that suggests there’s something much more sinister underlying the idyllic scenery.
Perhaps one of the reasons my attention wasn’t originally drawn to the score is simply that Greenwood’s work fits seamlessly into Reynolds’ high-fashion universe. It doesn’t rattle you in the same way Oneohtrix Point Never’s Oscar-snubbed but brilliant work for the Safdie brothers’ thriller Good Time will, for contrast. Greenwood sought to create a body of music that fit the era and could imitate what he imagined a man like Reynolds Woodcock would’ve listened to at that time. It’s a modern score with some antiquated flourishes, inspired by the work of Messiaen, Bach, and Penderecki, whose work Greenwood has turned to throughout his scoring career. Greenwood told the New York Times that the first versions of tracks for the score were much darker and too obvious, as if they were trying to tell the audience exactly what to expect next. It didn’t quite work for Anderson, whose films always look impeccable in an effort to mask conflict between characters and cushion the inevitable climactic reckoning to come. He doesn’t tell predictable stories, and that serves as a reminder that sometimes bad music choices can give it all away.
For most of the film, the audience is tricked into believing that Alma is going to murder her inattentive and cruel lover. Maybe by accident, or maybe because she realizes that being relegated to the role of a doormat is not exactly what she had in mind when she followed Reynolds to London. But as in most of Anderson’s films, the predictable doesn’t transpire, and what the audience is left with is a parable of sorts. Phantom Thread might easily be considered a “slow” film, but it’s propelled forward by Greenwood’s work, which feverishly quickens the pace and creates tension during unremarkable scenarios. There are what seem to be infinite montages of seamstresses tacking hems, Reynolds readjusting necklines, and Alma trying on gowns, each of which are accompanied by a sonic flurry that suggests there are greater things at stake here. Greenwood’s work is at its strongest when those flurries careen out of control and come to an abrupt halt.
There is a scene early on in Phantom Thread when Alma tries on a party dress made out of a thick, blue floral brocade. She thumbs the material and looks at herself in the mirror before expressing to Reynolds that she doesn’t like the fabric all that much. A bemused Reynolds and Cyril look at her silently, before they explain to Alma that her opinion matters little to them, that the dress is perfect as it is. Or, if you’re reading into it: that Alma’s opinion is wrong and that their world is perfect as it is, with or without her in it. As Alma continues to bad-mouth the dress, the instrumentation that plods along with her words reaches an emotional high before Reynolds puts an end to it by shouting out a firm and declarative: “STOP!”
And with that, the accompanying score falls away for an instant, leaving Alma with a scornful expression on her face. Before you can spend too much time focusing in on her dismay, the orchestra picks right back up again, a viola’s pizzicato smoothing over the bickering before anyone can make too much of it, as if to reassure you that Reynolds’ word is final. Everything else is an interruption.
Phantom Thread: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack is out now via Nonesuch.