Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Vicky Krieps, Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville
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“Why are you not married?” “I make dresses.” That’s the sound of the latest tortured male artist appearing on our screens. But this is no ordinary male artist: this is Reynolds Woodcock, dress maker extraordinaire and eccentric recluse. Played by Daniel Day-Lewis with almost vampiric suave, he cuts a magnetic figure, part dashing genius, part obnoxious idiot and part petulant child. In 1950s London, he’s a veteran of the fashion industry, but the world is changing, and his brand of haute couture is threatening to become (whisper it) old-fashioned.
“Don’t you start using that filthy little word!,” he spits at someone, when they dare to describe someone else’s dresses as chic. “Whoever invented that ought to be spanked in public.”
He’s delightful to watch, from his curiously not-quite-British accent to his carefully composed physical presence and graceful, precise movements – a perpetual designer at work, who seems to view everyone else in the world as either a potential model to wear his work or a distraction from his next creation. People exist to be in his admiring orbit, but not gravitate into his actual path.
So when he meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), a maid at a quaint cafe, and he whisks her off on a sumptuous date, it’s no surprise that when they go back to his place, the action that happens is restricted solely to the workshop; he gets her to strip down to undergarments with a clinical detachment, before his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), unexpectedly pops up and starts taking measurements. It’s bizarre, it’s awkward and it’s played by the siblings as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.
Cyril is the only woman in Reynolds’ life able to put him in his place, and she gladly plays the role of stern secretary, organising the company books and, when a muse outstays her welcome and becomes a nuisance, taking the trash out. But there’s an oedipal undertone to their relationship, as we learn that they lost their mother when young – and the script leans into the lingering loss that still haunts Woodcock, a man who learnt his trade at her hands, and, after creating her wedding dress as a young boy, continues to echo that act of devotion decades later. He even has a lock of her hair sewn into his coat.
So much of the pleasure of watching Phantom Thread derives from simply seeing these two interact, as Day-Lewis’ softly spoken dialogue clashes with Manville’s straight-talking, clipped delivery. She lashes out with acerbic one-liners that are funnier than many out-and-out comedies, and his reactions – sometimes wispy, sometimes callously blunt – are never less than priceless. (“Mrs. Vaughan is satisfied with the dress,” she informs him. “No one gives a tinker’s fucking curse about Mrs. Vaughan’s satisfaction!” he screams back.)
But the introduction of Alma into the world is the catalyst for the film’s gorgeous main drama, which disrupts their pristinely crafted rituals. She butters her toast too loudly, and she talks every time he needs quiet. She’s an incessant irritant to his habitual existence, so Cyril is all too ready to kick her out, like all the others who have come before. Except that doesn’t happen, as Alma digs her feet in, and Reynolds can’t bring himself to dig them out again.
Discovering the exact way in which that happens is all part of the fun, but it’s a fascinating blend of psychosexual desire and Alma’s own use of the powerful routine of eating and being fed – and, as these power games unfold, Vicky Krieps fittingly emerges as the strongest performer of the central trio. It’s not easy to steal scenes from Daniel Day-Lewis, but Krieps does it again and again, increasingly establishing her agency in a situation where she’s expected to be compliant; she unearths humour in Alma’s coy smarts, surprising aggression in her antagonism, and endearing earnestness in her refusal to be discarded without consideration. When she cooks Woodcock asparagus in precisely the way he hates it, it’s a fascinating mix of deliberate hostility, sincere mistake and childlike provocation. “Is this an ambush? Are you sent here to ruin my evening? And possibly my entire life?” he thunders, and she takes all those insults, but never lying down, prodding at his barriers until she finds a way through. She’s more alluring, intelligent and strategic than either of the other two realise, and seeing that shifting balance of control is nothing less than riveting.
The result plays out with far more laughs than you’d expect, as Paul Thomas Anderson reveals his haughty period drama to be a supremely twisted romantic comedy – one that disarms the chauvinist at its core and warms his chilly cruelty to something strangely warm and endearing. It’s a transformation that’s impeccably composed, from Mark Bridges’ old-school costume designs to Jonny Greenwood’s sumptuous score, which lilts from the sweet to the sinister with chamber piece intimacy and a playful edge. Anderson winds up with a perfect counterpoint to There Will Be Blood, and possibly the best film of his career.
By the end, Reynolds remains a bully, in many regards, but one who also recognises his equal in another, as a strange form of respect – and an appreciation of mutual reliance – forms. There’s a logic to this couple’s interplay of dominance and tender care, a romance to their willingness to give in to the pain of the other’s demands, and a gleeful horror in the way that Alma’s particular antidote to his toxic masculinity seeps into his system. Just as Manville is given more depth and heart than her brittle sidekick might have earned in other hands, Phantom Thread weaves a warped fairytale marriage out of unusual materials, finding kindness in a beast, venom in a beauty and empowerment in the realisation of a well balanced match. In a perverse yet oddly charming way, paranoia evolves into trust, suspicion evolves into affection, and tortured male artist cliches evolve into a complex, swooning masterpiece.