With Phantom Thread, director/writer Paul Thomas Anderson fits audiences into the warm embrace of a perfectly conceived and stitched garment of a movie. Its appeal is timeless, even when its story contains overtones of today’s issues. That may make the film a bit of a challenge for those mired in the cultural and political moment.
Contemporary cinema is often out to haunt us in the name of relevancy. But you sense Phantom Thread is different as soon as Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) strides into the picture.
He’s an upscale dressmaker for the elites and royals of London and the rest of Europe during the 1950s. He is, first and foremost, an artiste, complete with a temperament fostered by his ego and fed by the exacting management of his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville). She handles the day-to-day details so that Woodcock need not worry about anything but the celestial attire he creates. Her command extends, in part, to Woodcock’s personal space as well, where she orchestrates the revolving cast of muses that her brother picks up and just as quickly discards like cheap accessories. He can’t be bothered with the pesky emotional entanglements that these ladies bring with them, nor can he accept that they believe they have a part in crafting his lifestyle.
So, it is intriguing when Woodcock lays eyes on Alma (Vicky Krieps), a shy and awkward server at one of his favorite out-of-the-way restaurants. To the untrained eye, Woodcock seems smitten, an eager yet quite experienced puppy in love with the coquettish young woman. But, truth be told, what unfolds for Alma is actually an interview for a spot as Woodcock’s next muse. What he sees is not an object of love, but a moving mannequin, a perfect form upon which to construct and give life to new dresses. Remember, this man lives for nothing other than his work and he is — by all accounts — the best at what he does.
This situation presents itself as the embodiment of the social ills we now debate every day, especially within the film and entertainment industry. Woodcock is a man of power and influence, using all of the tools at his disposal — his refined good looks, his quiet intensity and the volcanic rage simmering underneath the surface — to cajole and coax women to do his bidding. Alma undresses for him, submits to his whims and follows his rules both professionally and personally… until she doesn’t. It’s when her rebellion takes form that the film becomes something more than a distorted mirror image of our current times.
Alma fights back, exerting her own considerable will and charms in a fierce resistance on two fronts. She has to, since Woodcock always has Cyril lurking nearby to support him. Director/writer Anderson, in this carefully constructed interplay, ups the ante on the stakes set by Darren Aronofsky in last year’s mother!, which set Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem against one another in a similarly pitched battle. But, unlike that film, Anderson stays true to the course he has initially, carefully plotted for this movie.
It helps that he’s got Day-Lewis as Woodcock in what morphs into an expertly conceived amalgamation of Day-Lewis roles. That it may also be his last role — he has been speaking of retirement — makes its achievement all the more important. Embedded in Woodcock are traces of Tomas, the dashing Czech doctor he played in Philip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, fighting against the advances of a woman seeking to tie him down to a life of monogamy. You will find, too, in his outstanding performance, echoes of the romantically conflicted Newland Archer in Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence. Woodcock could even be the less violent but still difficult alter ego to Daniel Plainview, the driven prospector at the center of Day-Lewis’s collaboration with Anderson in There Will Be Blood.
Watching Phantom Thread is akin to admiring the last garment from a legendary fashion house — a piece absolutely beyond your means or station but one that is still able to speak to and elevate your sensibilities. It is utterly transcendent and impossibly accessible all at once. (Now playing at area theaters.) (R) Grade: A