Plateau's problem asks whether every boundary curve in 3-space is spanned by an area minimizing surface. Various interpretations of this problem have been solved using eg. geometric measure theory. Froehlich and Struwe proposed a PDE approach, in which the desired surface is produced using smooth sections of a twisted line bundle over the complement of the boundary curve. The idea is to consider sections of this bundle which minimize an analogue of the Allen--Cahn functional (a classical model for phase transition phenomena) and show that these concentrate energy on a solution of Plateau's problem. After some background on the link between phase transition models and minimal surfaces, I will describe new work with Marco Guaraco in which we produce smooth solutions of Plateau's problem using this approach.