Phantom Thread may not be Paul Thomas Anderson’s most ambitious project, but like 2012’s The Master, there’s something about this movie that you can’t let go of. The more you mull over its idiosyncrasies, the more convinced you are that Anderson has created another masterpiece.
In what is allegedly his last picture, Daniel Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a ’50s couturier as set in his ways and frightfully British as his rigid old-timey name suggests. He makes unparalleled dresses for Europe’s elite under the banner The House of Woodcock, and like most great men he is also, in some ways, a bad man.
We’re privy to a morning routine of meticulous shaving, trimming, and impeccable dressing before Woodcock heads to the breakfast table. There he absent-mindedly sketches dresses, his sister and business partner Cyril (Lesley Manville) seated to the right, and frustrated current lover Johanna (Camilla Rutherford) to the left.
After a brief outburst from the latter, Woodcock has Cyril do away with Johanna off-screen. She’s clearly not the first woman to be casually discarded in this manner.
Enter Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress who instantly captures Woodcock’s eye. He asks her to dinner, an invitation she accepts, but what at first appears to be romantic turns out to be oddly asexual. They eat, drive back to his country home, and rather than make passionate love to her, Woodcock begins making Alma an outfit. To him, she is nothing but a thing to be dressed up, his interest in her purely aesthetic. It is only later, when Alma becomes a fixture and confidant, that desires become carnal. Then sadistic.
With Day-Lewis’ track record, it should come as no surprise that he’s phenomenal. If this is actually his last film, he’s going out on a high note. Through Woodcock, Anderson meditates on obsession, insatiability (with food as a recurring and climactic theme), and volatile artistry. There are few actors skilled enough to explore such lofty concepts with the subtlety and precision Day-Lewis shows here.
He’s not necessarily the tour de force he was in 2007’s There Will Be Blood, and that’s by design. Woodcock is only half of an increasingly bizarre relationship, but more so the thread stitching this story together and enabling Alma’s development.
She is the ultimate conduit of change; her agency—however sick—keeps this weird romance alive. Krieps’ evolving performance is marked by similar restraint and a skill equal to her counterpart’s. That’s no small feat given Day-Lewis’ abilities. This is really Krieps’ movie.
On the whole, Phantom Thread also marks a return to form for Paul Thomas Anderson. It’s possibly his most delicate picture, but the writer-director (and here cinematographer) makes a forceful impact. The “abusive artist and his muse” trope is by no means new, yet Anderson finds depth in unexplored places, and the end result is a seamless, gorgeous, and altogether fucked-up narrative that reasserts why Anderson is the greatest director working today.
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Vicky Krieps, Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville
Theater: Opens January 12