Paul Thomas Anderson’s sumptuous, elegant psychodrama about fashion, obsession and ego (allegedly) gives Daniel Day-Lewis’ career a fitting swan song.
Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a man of routine, head of one of the great haute couture houses in 1950s London. His life is as immaculately controlled and considered as the beautiful dresses he makes for women of stature, with nary a hair out of place in the sumptuous London studio he shares with sister and business partner Cyril (Lesley Manville). Even his romantic pursuits are transactional, his loves a series of temporary muses he discards when their personality grates, or they disrupt his routines too much.
Enter Alma (Vicky Krieps), a beautiful young waitress with which he strikes up a courtship. Soon enough, she becomes his latest source of inspiration, moving into his studio and slotting herself into the fragile dynamic Reynolds and Cyril have created for them. However, Alma is unlike Reynolds’ other lovers; a subtly unpredictable and self-assured soul, she will test his resolve – and their relationship – like never before.
There’s something innately personal about Paul Thomas Anderson’s work in his latest film, Phantom Thread. Working once again with his There Will Be Blood muse, Daniel Day-Lewis (this is purported to be his final performance), Anderson invites quite a few parallels to his central character. The film, like Reynolds’ own artistic creations, is highly considered and filled with obsessive cinematographic detail, with filmmaking as intricate and delicate as lace. One can imagine Anderson poring obsessively over storyboards or lighting setups (he also acted as his own cinematographer for this picture, going uncredited) the same way Reynolds stares at his sketchbook – demanding absolute perfection in every aspect. The result is a film as ordered and precise as any you’ll see this year, or any other.*
At its heart, Phantom Thread is a relationship story, a romantic psychodrama that dabbles in the styles of David Lean, Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock in equal measure. Hitchcock’s influences are deeply felt here in particular, with Alma and Reynolds’ difficult, strained romance smacking of films like Rebecca and Marnie. Reynolds, played with a strained lilt and pursed lips by Day-Lewis, is a curious creature, a capricious narcissist whose artistic genius and reputation have insulated him from criticism and change. Under Alma’s ministrations, Day-Lewis squirms with the best of them, and it’s delightful to see his incredibly controlled movements give way to outbursts of petty scorn when it suits him.
The most revelatory performance, however, easily goes to Vicky Krieps, a comparative newcomer whose huge, expressive eyes and subtle body language convey volumes of tamped-down emotion. In scene after scene, she holds her own, and even steals scenes right out from under Day-Lewis, one of the greatest actors of his generation. She’s a revelation in the truest sense of the word, and one can only hope this is the beginning of a long, dynamic career for such a talent.
Rounding out the cast is Phantom Thread’s true secret weapon: Lesley Manville – or rather, Lesley Manville’s dagger-like eyes. As the imperious Cyril, one of the only people who can successfully manage Reynolds, Manville offers an absolute masterclass in shade. She’s the primary conduit for the film’s moments of austere camp, Anderson having fun with his stuffy, tailored aristocrats with a simple cut to Cyril’s dagger-like glares. She, like us, knows how silly Reynolds is being, offering a bon mot under her breath as she sips tea or pulls her hair behind her ears before giving orders to Reynolds’ seamstresses.
Of course, as the cracks start to form in Alma and Reynolds’ relationship, and Alma in particular takes some surprising measures to keep herself in Reynolds’ esteem, Phantom Thread elevates itself from simple romantic drama to something approaching high-end horror. Shades of last year’s remake of The Beguiled abound in these sections; suffice to say, you’ll think twice the next time you eat mushrooms.
A masterwork that ranks among Anderson’s best, Phantom Thread is another beautiful tale of obsession and ambition that works as a spiritual sister to There Will Be Blood and The Master. The costumes are wondrous, the cinematography lush and intriguingly aged, and its anchored by a trio of pitch-perfect performances. There’s an aesthetic distance and languorous pace that might try the patience of those looking for something more dynamic and human, but Phantom Thread’s coldness is the perfect expression of Reynolds Woodcock’s closed-off perspective. Fittingly, it also adroitly captures his supplication before the one woman who finally has a chance to tame him.
*If you can, see it on the biggest screen you can, hopefully on celluloid. The grainy tangibility of film running through a real-life projector is one of the greatest ways to see movies, especially one as beautiful as this. The Music Box Theatre is currently featuring a 70mm presentation of Phantom Thread, which is possibly the best format to see it.
Phantom Thread opens in limited release in Chicago on Friday, January 12th, with a special 70mm presentation at the Music Box Theatre.