The opening lines in Paul Thomas Anderson’s new feature Phantom Thread are spoken by Alma (Vicky Krieps), a young British woman with an indefinite Continental slant to her accent. In hushed, carefully-chosen words, she tries to articulate — to an initially unseen listener — the peculiar topography of her relationship with Reynolds Woodcock, an eminent fashion designer in 1950s London. This fireside chat serves as a framing device, with Alma’s flannel-soft voice occasionally drifting in and out of the flashbacks that comprise the bulk of the film. She speaks of Reynolds in the present tense, but her worlds are wistful and reflective. She is attempting to make sense of the years she has spent as a muse, lover, and eventually wife to a dreadful, difficult man. As she tells it, Reynolds is a handsome and debonair romantic, and an undeniable master of haute couture — but also an insufferable, supercilious prick with some serious Mommy Issues.
At times, it’s devilishly easy to lose sight of Alma’s centrality in this story, if only because Reynolds Woodcock is played by Daniel Day Lewis.The actor’s formidable shadow veritably looms over the past three decades of English-language narrative cinema, with his singularly esteemed reputation attributable in part to his demonic performance in Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007). Everything about Day-Lewis seems designed to draw the eye: His impossibly regal, Roman profile; his seething, squinting facial expressions; his coiled, ever-present whiff of volatility; his facility for grandiose yet mesmerizing monologues. The marvelous conceptual canniness of Phantom Thread lies in how Anderson — one of the great living American filmmakers, and certainly the most consistent in his greatness — turns Day-Lewis’ overpowering presence into a feature, not a bug. Indeed, it’s challenging to imagine another actor in the role, if only because the irresistible, elemental force of Daniel Day-Lewis is so crucial to the character's resonance.
Reynolds, like Day-Lewis himself, is a creative luminary who approaches his work with a zeal that is daunting to the mere mortals that surround him. Obsessive, narcissistic, and astonishingly cold-hearted, the designer is intolerably certain of his genius and the deference he is accordingly owed. The flock of women who attend him — seamstresses, servants, models, lovers — are obliged to creep and grovel, lest they disturb his Great Work with unintentional sins. (Scraping a butter knife across toast too noisily, for example.) The only person his wrath never seems to touch is his prim older sister Cyril (Leslie Manville), whom he affectionately calls his “old so-and-so”. Humorless and effortlessly domineering, Cyril is at once the chamberlain, marshal, and sharp-eyed vizier of the House of Woodcock. When Reynolds tires of one of his muses but cannot be bothered to formally end the affair, it is Cyril who pitilessly sends the heartbroken woman packing.
However, while Reynolds might be the center of attention, Phantom Thread is Alma’s story. It relates how she fell under the Woodcock spell, and how she — like the muses before her — eventually became fed up with the man’s aloofness, abusiveness, and petty, unreasonable demands. In a sense, then, Anderson’s film is a tale as old as time: a woman falls head-over-heels for an admittedly dazzling man, only to belatedly discover that he is an unmitigated bastard who makes her utterly miserable. Alma is a shy waitress at a country inn when the designer first meets her, and her ascension into Reynolds’ dizzying, fashionable life is sudden, steep, and intoxicating. Her disillusioning descent is equally sharp when she is forced to confront the grotesque day-to-day reality of life with a shameless egomaniac.
Unlike the women who preceded her, however, Alma has no intention of allowing herself to be put out by the curb like yesterday’s rubbish. Accordingly, what begins as a straightforward (if sumptuous) tale of May-December heartbreak resolves into something much more twisted. Phantom Thread never discards its aura of sinuous, swooning luxury, but a sinister miasma drifts into the film’s latter half. The story becomes a dark dance of deception, control, and emotional perversity, recalling the works of English writer Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, “Don’t Look Now”) and bits of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). There are shades of fairy tale menace, as well: The plot evokes “Bluebeard” and “Beauty and Beast”, but Anderson unravels and loops the traditional dynamic of such folk stories — an innocent maiden in the power of a monstrous brute — into complex, Freudian knots. Phantom Thread remains a grounded yet exultant romance to its end, but it is a romance that snakes off in some disquieting and utterly unexpected directions.
Such marvelous unpredictability with respect to story is one of the distinguishing features of Anderson’s past four films, all of them masterpieces after a fashion: There Will Be Blood, The Master (2012), Inherent Vice (2014), and now Phantom Thread. Nonetheless, the director’s newest film is also his most accessible and stately work to date, at least on its creamy satin surface. The film has the cursory attributes one expects of middlebrow awards-season dramas, such as lavishly realized period production design and a towering central performance by an A-list star. However, there’s no sense of crass calculation discernible in Phantom Thread, even when it luxuriates indulgently in the sheer loveliness of Reynolds’ rarefied world. Anderson embraces the allure of his setting honestly, plainly reveling in the splendor of extravagant, hand-made dresses, but also in the timeless beauty of 19th- and early 20th-century furnishings, or in a pocket square nestled just so in a houndstooth jacket. Phantom Thread is, in other words, an achingly pretty film that adores pretty things, even when the plot turns strangely unruly and treacherous.
Much like There Will Be Blood and The Master, Anderson’s latest work exhibits a dreamy, liquid quality in its editing, here handled brilliantly by Dylan Tichenor. The director’s films don’t have scenes and acts so much as symphony-like movements, and it’s in Phantom Thread that this approach finds its most comfortable fit, befitting a romance told mostly in flashback. Swatches of remembrances are laid alongside one another, creating an almost expressive whirl of sensations and moods. This approach is pinned down with a handful of more galvanic, actorly passages — the events that Alma would naturally recollect in crisp detail, such as her first starry-eyed evening with Reynolds, or a vicious, pivotal quarrel between the lovers. Crucial to the film’s fluid rhythms is the score from perennial Anderson collaborator Jonny Greenwood. Here the composer delivers his most traditional and unabashedly lovely work for the director to date, replete with lush, yearning strings and besotted, meandering strolls along the piano.
Anderson’s nimble talent with cinema’s formal aspects and his ability to elicit career-best work from cast and crew alike were already evident in Hard Eight (1996) and Boogie Nights (1997). However, over the course of the past decade or so, the director has evolved into one of America’s most inimitable and slippery auteurs. His films do not exhibit a signature style that is easily mimicked or parodied, and they defy reductive description and categorization. What unifies them is Anderson’s unfailingly heady cinematic storytelling, as well as a fearless compulsion to burrow deep into strange, unexplored corners of the human experience — whether psychological, sociological, or historical. The director’s characters are often eccentric and deeply troubled creatures, resistant to crude cultural boxes and simplistic, multiplex psychoanalysis.
Both Krieps and the screenplay portray Alma as this sort of enigmatic and contradictory soul, echoing the way that the actress’ cherubic, girl-next-door beauty clashes with her small, dark, inscrutable eyes. Alma’s suffering and the reasons for it are as obvious as the fire that at times flashes in those eyes, but — notwithstanding her narration — the viewer is not always privy to the intricacies of her thoughts, motivations, and desires. If there’s one factor that disrupts Phantom Thread’s plain ambitions to be a slyly feminist work, it’s the film’s intermittently frustrating tendency to treat its heroine as a cipher who is compelling primarily due to her relationship with a powerful and deeply flawed man.
Reynolds, in contrast, is an open book. He’s an inveterate romantic, generous with his adoration (at least initially), unashamed of his humble origins, and refreshingly cavalier when it comes to the suffocating niceties of the British class system. (For all his vanity, he refers to his unfathomably expensive, made-to-order designs, which are worn by countesses and princesses, as a “trade”, not an art.) For Reynolds, the clothes are everything. In one of the film’s more amusing and crowd-pleasing sequences, he storms a drunken dowager’s honeymoon suite to demand that she return her wedding dress, claiming that she has besmirched such a fine garment with her boorish behavior. However, this late-night mission of reclamation — which he shares with an equally riled Alma, sealing her status as a romantic partner who “gets” him — also points to Reynolds’ faults. He’s a preening control freak and finicky man-child whose brokenhearted adoration for his deceased mother shapes all his relationships. Physically tender but emotionally sadistic, he jabs explosively at Alma for the slightest reason (or no reason at all), lobbing the most malicious verbal insults imaginable with almost offhand irritation.
It’s apparent why Alma both adores and despises this man, but it’s not until the film’s second hour that she herself puzzles out why she remains with him and what exactly she wants from such a supremely dysfunctional relationship. Devising a perilous means to shift the dynamic of their union — to clandestinely transform herself from the possessed to the possessor — Alma turns Phantom Thread into something thornier and more stimulating than a “mere” romantic melodrama. It remains a romance, but an enormously warped one, wherein the leads circle one another like predatory animals during a particularly rancorous mating season, their longings hopelessly muddled with fears, fury, and territoriality. After a certain point, Alma and Reynolds are not entirely certain what kind of bizarre game they are playing, but they are aware that they are playing one. This mostly wordless chess match concludes with a heart-stopping sequence of feints and gambits involving, of all things, the cooking and consumption of a mushroom omelet. Phantom Thread is, in its way, a perfect date film, but it is emphatically not a first date film. It's for lovers who have been together for years, tamed each other, learned each others' tricks, and somehow negotiated a symbiosis that would no doubt baffle an outside observer.