Reynolds Woodcock, the 1950s-era British fashion titan played by the astounding Daniel Day Lewis in what he cruelly insists is his final film role, likes secrets. Specifically, he likes to sew them into his clothes, notes to himself in the lining of a garment that mark his art as indelibly his. Paul Thomas Anderson – who wrote, directed and served as uncredited camera operator on Phantom Thread – crafts films the exact same way, marking his territory and teasing us to discover the hidden gems inside. You don’t need to, of course. Since Anderson, 47, is the best, most provocative and eternally questing filmmaker of his generation, you can ride the surface of his richly imagined cinematic creations and still get the wind knocked out of you. But why settle for surface? From Hard Eight through Inherent Vice, this artist has always dared audiences to dig deeper.
The wildly inventive and perversely funny Phantom Thread, set to the hypnotic thrum of Jonny Greenwood’s orchestral score, concerns a workaholic narcissist and the women who fall into his orbit. Anderson has noted influences, including Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Vertigo. But aside from being about how we need love no matter how it fucks us up, those film influences are a slight misdirection. He uses the work of other artists as a springboard, not a blueprint – and besides, Woodcock is not Hitchcock, i.e. an artist looking for a muse created out of ghosts from his past. Not to mention that this film takes you places those earlier movies wouldn’t think of going.
Our man in London is a top designer, one who compartmentalizes his life so personal distractions can’t penetrate the bubble he builds around his art. “Marriage would make me deceitful, and I don’t ever want that,” he says. Woodcock’s world does not exclude sex – only commitment. In fact, a long line of models form in the hope of attracting his attention, usually muses he can exploit until he discards them. Or rather, his sister does. Her name is Cyril, and as played by the magnificent Lesley Manville with brittle efficiency and hints of a nurturing heart, she enables her brother. Then his eyes fall on Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress working at a seaside hotel. The young woman jumps into his bed but seems unprepared to spur his creativity. Their romance is totally lacking in an erotic charge until Woodcock sews a dress on Alma’s body … and his fantasy of her comes to life. (OK, maybe there’s a lot of Vertigo in that notion.)
Then he moves on. The fashion godhead is struggling to keep up with changes in haute couture, and there’s no place for Alma in his life except as a distraction. The trouble starts when she pushes her way into his work. Petty annoyances like biting loudly into her toast are nothing compared to criticizing his designs or choice of fabric. To re-establish their bond, Alma decides to dismiss the staff and surprise him with a home-cooked dinner for two. “Let me be unambiguous,” Cyril tells her. “Don’t do it.” She does do it. The result is a disaster. The muse has thrown the master off balance. She furthers the impact by goading him into a jealous fit at a New Year’s party. Then she starts taking more drastic measures to get his attention.
Sick in bed with fever and near death, Woodcock lets Alma begin to nurse him back to health – at which point Anderson turns Phantom Thread into a dark comedy of relationships that thrive only after they’re broken and take a new form. Sexual politics, then and now, echo through the film. Is the filmmaker working out his own issues through his infirm screen counterpart? Maybe so, but don’t look here for gossipy details about the director’s 16-year relationship with actress-comedian Maya Rudolph, the mother of their four children. It’s what’s elemental that counts.
Day-Lewis traces the arc of his character from remote tyrant to willing slave with a majestic command – his immersion in the role, down to the pinpricks on Woodcock’s fingers, is total. The Luxembourg-born Krieps (pronounced creeps) has a harder go of it playing a woman who must be all things to one impossible man. But she stands her ground, riding the waves of Anderson’s artful, ardent writing and direction until Alma turns the tables. The film is gorgeous in every detail, with costumes by Mark Bridges and production design by Mark Tildesley that dazzle the senses. But the overriding theme is the agony and euphoria of creation.
It’s endlessly fascinating to watch the actor and artist behind the camera (sharers in the same creative obsession) negotiate a hard truce between art and life. Anderson is deliberate and cunning about revealing the secrets he’s sewn into the fabric of his spellbinder of a film. Taking full measure of Phantom Thread may require more than one viewing – a challenge any genuine movie lover will be eager to accept. Our advice for now: just sit back and behold.