Phantom Thread ultimately threw me for a loop. That’s what’s good about it. Or maybe it’s what’s best about it. It takes a while to come to that realization.
Until then, we follow along as renowned 1950s-era London clothing designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) falls in love with his latest muse, Alma (Vicky Krieps). It’s not that simple, though: to say Woodcock’s life is controlled would be an understatement. The man is upper-middle-aged, and as we see early on in the film, his muses have long been part of the routine: they come and go, until he tires of them. His focus is always on his work first, and this is facilitated by his sister, Cryil (Lesley Manville), with whom he is particularly close, both personally and professionally. Cyril is the one who will ask Reynolds if he would like her to ask that whatever woman it is leave.
The story here, then, is the woman who comes along and, once that question is asked, Reynolds says no. Reynolds has many difficulties with Alma’s unusual interruptions and breaks in his beloved routine, most of them rather subtle – it could be something as simple as her loudly scraping butter on her toast. Over time, Reynolds discovers himself to be attached to these interruptions. And then, after most of the movie presents as merely a sweet love story filled with many stunningly designed dresses (if this doesn’t get nominated for Costume Design it will be a travesty), a certain darkness to these interruptions is revealed. There is something very fucked up about this relationship, as it turns out, and Reynolds loves it.
If anything can be said about writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, it’s that he is unlike any other director. Furthermore – and this is quite an accomplishment – each of his own movies is unlike any other he’s done. I have been a loyal and eager fan since Magnolia (1999) and his films have been reliable masterworks since Boogie Nights (1997). Only with 2015’s Inherent Vice did he disappoint – I broke with the majority of critics, for once, and found that one frustratingly convoluted. Phantom Thread is a welcome return to something both comprehensible and compelling.
Daniel Day-Lewis, as it happens, is here collaborating with P.T. Anderson a second time, ten years after – yet another masterwork -- There Will Be Blood. Day-Lewis says this will be his final acting role, but I take that announcement with a grain of salt (okay, Cher). It could be argued that this man is the greatest actor alive today, and you only need to compare his two roles in P.T. Anderson films to see it: the characters Reynolds Woodcock and Daniel Plainview could not possibly be more different. Woodcock certainly has his own repressions, but he also has barely guarded insecurities, and a genuine warmth when he wants to share it. He actually smiles. He is literally soft-spoken, and there is a certain comfort just in hearing him speak.
One of my favorite things about Phantom Thread is how many female characters it features. Daniel Day-Lewish may be the star, but aside from the small part of a male doctor, every other part of any note is of a woman: Alma; Cyril; the many employees who assist Reynolds with the assembly of his dresses. It could even be said that the emotional heart of Phantom Thread is not embodied by either Reynolds or Alma, but Reynolds’s sister, Cyril. Lesley Manville plays her beautifully, conveying a range of frustrations and resentments through measured and cold stares. Evidently never having had any romance in her own life, which is entirely wrapped up in Reynolds’s, she is the one who must come to terms with a permanent change in a brother she has relied on for decades. It would feel cheap to call this sibling rivalry; it’s something much deeper than that. In any case, Manville and Day-Lewis are completely convincing as siblings.
Alma, for her part, is deceptively deferential as Reynolds brings her in as his muse. Phantom Thread is partly narrated by her, the camera jumping back to her talking to someone in front of a fireplace. Who the hell is she talking to? We find out soon enough, at which point her relationship with Reynolds is revealed to be, let’s say, unconventional. Saying that alone might make one think exactly how it’s unconventional is easy to guess. Trust me, it’s not. This movie takes its time at it, but it goes in unexpected directions that are subtly disturbing. And if a movie must be disturbing, subtle is perhaps the best way to go. It makes a movie richer with repeat viewings, and I will certainly be watching this one again.