Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Phantom Thread tells the story of an artist with an obsession in his work that dominates his very being. The meticulous rituals that he follows are so strict and the commitment to his craft is so absolute that it becomes impossible to draw a line between his professional and personal lives. The same could be said of Daniel Day-Lewis himself, an actor of such discipline and intensity, his method will not permit any line between the performer and the character. Thus, if this is indeed to be the end of his career, Phantom Thread is the perfect swan song for an artist of Day-Lewis’ disposition; it is a chance to turn the camera on himself and reflect on what it means to devote oneself to one’s art in this way. To that end there is no greater companion he could have asked for than Paul Thomas Anderson, a director who excels at themes of obsession, control, and domination and at exploring the opposing, interconnected forces of creation and destruction. That these ideas are explored through the lens of love tells us something about how they view art.
Here Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a respectable, well-kempt English gentleman who seems prim and proper at first glance but is gradually revealed to possess a dark, sinister edge. He is a character not unlike those that Laurence Olivier used to portray in films like Wuthering Heights and Rebecca, emotionally abusive men whose obsessions prove damaging to the women in their lives. Reynolds is a renowned fashion designer who lives his life according to a pattern of total order that does not tolerate deviation, disturbance, or disarray. Every morning he shaves his face methodically, trims the hairs on his nose and ears with precision, and carefully applies his clothes as if he were dressing to meet the Queen of England. We first see him at the breakfast table where a household figure, a younger woman called Johanna (Camilla Rutherford) whose affiliation with Reynolds is a subject of some ambiguity, presents him with a pastry that inspires him with a look of grimace. His routine is thus ruined in a stroke, rendering him unable to focus on his work for the rest of the day, leading him to consult his sister and business partner Cyril (Lesley Manville) and requesting her to dismiss the unfortunate woman.
Reynolds decides he needs a break to recuperate and retreats to his country estate. One morning he takes his breakfast in a small-town café and there meets clumsy waitress Alma Espen (Vicky Krieps). Intrigued, he flirts with her in a rather domineering manner, which she receives assuredly, and gives her a large and exact food order, which she remembers by heart. After taking her to dinner and talking at length about his late mother and how he became a dressmaker because of her, he leads Alma back to his studio for what she assumes will be a seduction. Instead he asks her to model for him and immediately starts drawing inspiration from everything about her: her appearance, her personality, even her insecurities. “He likes a little belly”, says Cyril, who arrives presently and takes Alma’s measurements, effectively killing whatever romantic mood had remained in the evening by this point. Later, as they walk hand-in-hand beside a lake, Reynolds invites Alma to live with him, model for him, and be his muse, a proposal to which the enamoured girl agrees. Their relationship and the things they do with (and to) each other is the driving force of the film.
The relationship we see isn’t a particularly happy one. Whether he realised it or not when he fell for her, Reynolds discovers before long that Alma is her own person with her own background, habits, and preferences and she proves quite unwilling to meet his demanding standards and conform to his inflexible customs. She butters her toast too loudly at breakfast, she frequently wants to go dancing, and she arranges surprises for him that, if well intentioned, are not very thoughtful given how unambiguously particular he has unrelentingly been about doing things according to his own routine. In one scene she tries to treat him to a nice spot of tea while he’s working and he is completely blind to the affection behind the gesture because the interruption has disrupted his state of mind, leaving him in a temporary creative limbo that in turn throws his entire day into flux. Even though he quite clearly depends on Alma for inspiration, he insults, ignores, and oppresses her and is staunchly unable or unwilling to show her the intimacy she desperately craves. No matter how caring or adoring she is, she never finds herself able to break down his rigidity and dominance because it is far too ingrained in who he is and what he does. Both characters are perfectly imperfect, meaning that our sympathies alternate between the two with each passing scene.
Drawing inspiration from the filmographies of Hitchcock, Kubrick, and Powell & Pressberger (James Mason in Lolita and Anton Walbrook in The Red Shoes are also clear predecessors of Reynolds Woodcock), Anderson unofficially assumes the role of cinematographer and composes an exquisite composition of light, colour, and movement. He uses tight framing and precise editing to convey a sense of how Reynolds’ strict, severe lifestyle really feels to Alma, suffocating and claustrophobic, and exercises restraint in his camera movements. The colours are as muted and textured as the pale and creamy fabrics that Reynolds uses in the dresses he designs and give the film a pristine and beautiful surface that looks almost too delicate to touch. Complementing these images is Greenwood’s elegant score with its graceful piano themes and rich orchestration, capturing a devastatingly romantic mood akin to the use of Rachmaninov in David Lean’s Brief Encounter, a movie of the bygone era that Phantom Thread takes place in.
The acting of the three leads meanwhile is note-perfect. Day-Lewis, who is mostly known for delivering elaborate, tour-de-force performances in such films as Gangs of New York and There Will Be Blood, is more restrained in this role but still remains lively and intense. As Reynolds he is both attractive and cruel, a predatory, almost vampyric, figure whose unbending perfectionism is matched only by his acerbic wit. What’s truly surprising though is how much of the heavy lifting is done by the relatively unknown Krieps. She assumes the typical role of the inexperienced and submissive bride (so to speak, their marital status is never really elaborated) with the right balance of vulnerability and earnestness, but then adds in a gradually increasing assertiveness that manifests itself in her climatic effort to bring Reynolds down a couple of pegs. It is truly a revelatory performance. Manville meanwhile as the older sister, there to keep Reynolds and Alma in check and ensure that the work gets done, is wonderfully shrewd and provides many of the film’s greatest laughs while maintaining an impeccable sense of gravitas and dignity.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Phantom Thread is how wickedly funny it is, given how seriously everything is treated. Much of this humour comes from the farcical conflict between Reynolds’ absurd fussiness and Alma’s infuriating carelessness, eventually leading to a rather bizarre yet fascinating conclusion. It’s one of those endings where we don’t know if we should treat it as oddly uplifting, outlandishly strange, or morbidly dark. The best comparison I can think of is Steven Shainberg’s Secretary, where the central couple reach a status quo that may look weird and unhealthy to us on the outside but which works for them. The romance that Reynolds and Alma share is ultimately a mystery, one that we can never really hope to solve. It brings us back to the title, a ‘phantom thread’ being a hidden message stitched into the fabric of a dress unknown to all save the designer who wrote and hid it. Phantom Thread is a breathtakingly captivating film that surprises at every turn and, if this truly is the last we will see of Daniel Day-Lewis, it is as fine an ending for a prolific career as one could possibly ask for.