Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread is as strangely intoxicating as its title is clumsy. The title refers to Daniel Day-Lewis’s fashion designer character who, unbeknownst to his noble clientele, secretly sews hidden messages into the folds of his creations. The intoxication part comes from writer/director/cinematographer Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterful manipulation of mood and tone and the sneaky way he lures us into his sensuous love story about an emotionally isolated man awakened by a woman who may not be as she appears.
The film opens with a lengthy shot of London-based master dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) preparing for his day. Whether a byproduct of his craft, or simply because the upper-middle-aged “confirmed bachelor” is so set in his ways, he’s an annoyingly meticulous man, a fact highlighted by the deliberate manner in which he pulls on his pants and brushes his hair. Even the way he butters his toast at the breakfast table speaks both to the attention Anderson and Day-Lewis have given to their character as well as to the way their story will roll out. Reynolds is a miserable prick with Mommy issues and his story is a slow burn exploration into the intricacies of the human condition. You’ll think you know where this thing is going, when you really have no idea.
Holding stead over Reynolds’ couturier empire is his hawk-eyed sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) who herds a stable of white-clad seamstresses about the premises while also tending to the everyday business of the London townhouse that doubles as the dress shop. The House of Woodcock may clothe the rich and famous, but it is Cyril who dresses down her brother when it comes to matters of the estate. She’s undoubtedly the stoic gatekeeper between the fussy artist and his affluent clientele, but more importantly, she also holds the key to his romantic matters, specifically as the designated mouthpiece to shoo along the most recent temptress to overstay her welcome.
It is during a hotel breakfast that Reynolds catches the eye of his next victim, waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps), a woman of indeterminate origin but certain gumption as she soon becomes his girlfriend, lover, model, muse, and eventually… his antagonist. Just like in any relationship, right? Oh, you have no idea! As he did with those before Alma, Reynolds snips, measures, and stitches her into the family fold. She even begins to contribute original dress designs, but unlike her predecessors, Alma soon begins to break out of her assigned mold. She pushes back against the controlling Reynolds who has Cyril on his side, while at her disposal is only her own steely resolve which might prove more than enough.
There’s a sinister darkness that threads its way through their relationship that Anderson has said was inspired by Hitchcock’s 1940 thriller, Rebecca. Yes, there’s certainly some of that, but Anderson powers past that reference into much more menacing territory. And what deliciously perverse territory it is. Like with his main character, Anderson slowly peels back the story’s layers, holding us at bay, never completely letting us in. Anderson has us under his spell aided by Johnny Greenwood's mesmerizing score. But Alma’s resolve and courage – combined with a little culinary creativity – begin to chip away at Reynolds’ impenetrable facade. And that’s when the real fun begins.
Though Phantom Thread is only the second collaboration between Day-Lewis and Anderson (the first being 2007’s There Will Be Blood), it feels like their tenth, with the duo clearly operating in some kind of cycle-sister lock-step that belongs on a higher plane. Together (Day-Lewis reportedly pitched in on the script) they’ve created an intoxicating little tale stitched together with the utmost care and meticulous attention to detail. If Daniel Day-Lewis holds to his word that this will be his last film, he’ll certainly go out on top. But emerging from his legendary shadow is the brilliantly refreshing Krieps, who nearly steals the entire show. How intimidating it must have been on set with the dynamic duo of method drama, but you’d never know it from her staggering performance in Phantom Thread. She’s truly that good here.
Phantom Thread is a slimy serpent disguised as a harmlessly pleasant little portrait of an artist. But beneath the mental camouflage and cerebral trickery is an elemental story about love, power, control, and an entitled man’s reckoning with the life he’s made for himself. And what a reckoning it is!
(Released by Focus Features and rated “R” by MPAA.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.