In “Phantom Thread,” Paul Thomas Anderson illustrates the same nexus between creativity and misogyny that Darren Aronofsky did in “mother!,” but, unlike Aronofsky, does so in a cool, detachedly perfectionist style reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick. There’s also more than a nod to the Hitchcock of “Rebecca” at work. And yet while one can point to these and other cinematic reference points, the film, which manages simultaneously to be both frostily elegant and oddly tawdry, is still distinctively Anderson’s work, different as it is from his previous films.
It is also reputedly the final screen performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, who has announced his intention to retire from acting, at least on the screen. In what might therefore be his swan song, he plays Reynolds Woodcock, a famous British fashion designer in the London of the fifties. A creature of habit who demands utter control over every element of his life, he depends greatly on the only person he trusts—his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), who sees to the practicalities of the house—in both the domestic and the business senses—while her brother produces his individualistic masterpieces.
Like Javier Bardem’s unnamed poet in Aronofsky’s film, however, Woodcock also requires a feminine muse. As the film opens, she is Johanna (Camilla Rutherland), with whom he is having breakfast. But he has apparently sucked all the inspiration he can from her, so Cyril divines that it is time to rid their household of the lovely but no longer useful young woman, apparently the latest in a long line. As for Woodcock, while Cyril is attending to her dismissal, he will take a road trip to his country studio in his sports car.
Along the way, he stops at a hotel for breakfast. It is there that he encounters Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress who might be a trifle klutzy but who entrances him. He asks her out to dinner, and afterward takes her to the studio, where he uses her as a model for a dress. He has found his new muse.
Soon Alma is ensconced in Woodcock’s London townhouse-cum-studio, having taken Johanna’s place. It is hardly a romantic arrangement; they have separate bedrooms, after all. What Woodcock demands of Alma—in addition to her presence—is utter docility.
But she proves to have an independent streak. She questions Reynolds’ designs. She upsets his concentration at breakfast by buttering her toast too noisily. She disrupts his cherished routine by arranging a quiet evening for them alone, making dinner by herself—and not preparing the dishes in the ways he not only prefers but demands. She insists that they go out to a New Year’s celebration, and when he refuses goes solo, compelling him to retrieve her. It’s a battle of wills in which Woodcock appears to hold all the cards.
But as her strange relationship with Woodcock seems to deteriorate, Alma decides to bring him into line in a fashion that can be seen as an act of love as perverse as his. And Reynolds falls into her trap. Does he do so willingly or not? If the ending “Phantom Thread” is any indication, it appears to be the former. The two are like scorpions in a bottle, each warily eying—and depending on–the other. Yet the balance between them has altered, with Alma now the dominant figure.
One might interpret Anderson’s film as a weird reversal of “The Taming of the Shrew,” in which Woodcock’s cool cruelty replaces Kate’s harridan impulses and Alma becomes the tamer. Exactly what message Anderson intends to send is debatable, but what’s clear is that he’s packaged it with the utmost care, adding elements of farce—especially about Woodcock’s customers—that feed into the overall feel of dissolute privilege. The production design by Mark Tildesley is impeccable, the costumes by Mark Bridges extraordinary, and the score by Jonny Greenwood lusciously romantic yet slightly sinister as well. Anderson, doing his own camerawork, captures the languorous feel with precision, and Dylan Tichenor’s editing emphasizes it in terms of pacing. Nothing is rushed here.
And of course there is Day-Lewis, who endows Woodcock with a mysterious air that at once combines a persona of absolute authority with an underlying emotional neediness. Utterly scrupulous in matters of appearance, demanding of complete adherence to his whims, and capable of furious outbursts, he still cannot do without Cyril, and in time submits to Alma’s rule. Manville matches him in control of every aspect of her performance, while the gaggle of women who portray the devoted seamstresses of the House of Woodcock bring the firm to bustling life, especially in a crucial scene in which they must repair a damaged dress in record time. If there is a weak link, it is Krieps, an actress of unconventional beauty but limited nuance.
“Phantom Thread” might be set in the world of haute couture, but despite its aspirations it is not a work of high art; it can more properly be classified as a strangely cerebral, lovingly fashioned but slightly trashy study of emotional gamesmanship that invites respect for its chilly craftsmanship more than its dramatic resonance. In the present climate of concern over sexual harassment and abusive male behavior, however, it certainly strikes a timely chord.