Daniel Day-Lewis plays a 1950s English dress designer alongside newcomer Vicky Krieps as his muse in the latest from Paul Thomas Anderson.
Arriving almost as if in a time capsule from the early 1950s, Paul Thomas Anderson’s exquisitely idiosyncratic Phantom Thread extends an invitation into an exclusive cocoon occupied by card-carrying eccentrics who demonstrate that all is fair in love and the world of haute couture. Less grandiose than the writer-director’s last three features, as well as more precision-controlled, this is a melodrama of love, desire and gamesmanship among three control freaks played out in a veritable hot-house in which the winner will be determined by who wilts last. More unconventional and downright weird on a moment-to-moment basis than it is in overall design and intent, it’s a singular work played out mostly in small rooms that harks back to psychological melodramas of the 1940s/50s but hits stylistic notes entirely its own. Anderson’s ardent fans will be the first in line, while others will be drawn to see star Daniel Day-Lewis in what he has announced will be his final film appearance. We can all hope he one day changes his mind.
The post-World War II financial stress felt by most Britons seems not to have encroached upon the exalted enclave of high fashion and neurotic self-concern inhabited by dashing middle-aged clothing designer Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis). An elegant perfectionist whose clients seem to be mostly dowagers of a certain age willing and able to pay for elegant new garments every time they appear in society, the often silent man has cultivated an air of imperturbable self-absorption, and woe be to anyone with the effrontery to interrupt him when inspiration might hit at any moment. If the phrase “Genius At Work” had not already existed, he would have had to invent it.
You would think that Woodcock (the name, of course, reminds of Hitchcock) had the most important job in the world by the “do not disturb” vibes he emanates. His silences are meant to seem profound, all-important to his creative process, and whatever class station he was born into has been rendered irrelevent.The only person who is certain to know the full truth about him is his stern and proper sister Cyril (the estimable Lesley Manville), the gatekeeper who lives to keep her brother’s life immaculately organized and free of distractions. Any initial resemblance between Cyril and Judith Anderson’s controlling Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca is quite assuredly intentional.
And just as there was a young female wild card fated to upset a household’s suffocating equilibrium in Alfred Hitchcock’s first American film, so there is in Anderson’s first British film. Alma (Luxembourgish actress Vicky Krieps) is a waitress (who just happens to have the same name as Hitchcock’s real-life wife), seems to be in her early 30s, is polite and proper but with a ready smile and fair-game disposition. Woodcock’s conversational approach with her is far from normal, but he’s funny, disarmingly frank without actually revealing anything — a seductive odd duck. He brings her home but nothing happens (Cyril is there to greet them) and, when it eventually does, we see nothing of it; on the surface, it’s a very chaste work.
While there is precious little overt “drama” per se, before you know it you’ve become happily ensconced in a peculiar world you’ve never visited or even imagined before. The initial expectation is that a jealous and protective Cyril will try to use her wiles to out-maneuver Alma and send her packing, but this obvious plot line is subverted before long. A more useful key to discovering what’s going on is one character’s reference to a staring contest, with the implication that whoever blinks first loses.
The characters, and the film they inhabit, are loaded with peculiarities and perversities large and small. After Woodcock has brought Alma home, the designer in a professional capacity takes precise measurements of every possible angle and contour of her body and declares, “You’re perfect. It’s my job to keep you so,” disputing her belief that she’s too flat-chested. Quite apart from Krieps’ wonderfully subtle performance, it was very shrewd of Anderson to cast a little-known actress with no associative baggage and who’s pretty but perhaps not conventionally so; at times reminiscent of Meryl Streep as well as Julianne Moore, she can be quite alluring indeed when she comes alive with humor, energy and desire, but when standing dutifully at attention in uniform with the many other young women in Woodcock’s employ, she stands out barely at all.
As the guardian of all things Woodcock, professionally and personally, Manville commandingly exerts the force that convinces one and all that she maintains an iron grip on her brother’s professional eminence and personal equilibrium — until, perhaps, she doesn’t, which is when things get really interesting. That the film arguably reaches its grand turning point in a scene devoted to Woodcock eating an omelette says something about the film’s unrelenting oddness.
It’s a safe bet that no film has ever featured so much sewing and clothes-making before, or takes it this seriously. Woodcock so ponders and agonizes over his creations that you’d think you were watching Beethoven birthing a symphony or Tolstoy laboring over the umpteenth revision of War and Peace. In numerous close-ups are visible little scabby pinpricks on Woodcock/Day-Lewis’ thumb, without doubt the result of the actor’s months’ long practice at sewing with substantial needles. The verisimilitude of all the scenes devoted to the process cannot be questioned and are the partial result of the sort of total immersion in a character’s work and physical capacities that the actor is known for embracing.
Astonishingly, the London-born Day-Lewis hasn’t played an Englishman in a film since Stars and Bars in 1988, but he plays a consummate one here, a perfectionist whose image and role in society he has tailored with the same fastidiousness he applies to his work. With Alma he becomes playful at times but at others shuts her out; being preoccupied and impossibly self-centered are part of a persona that’s been as immaculately crafted as his best fashion creations.
Playing a “difficult” artist is something Day-Lewis knows something about — whether it’s because he is one himself or just knows a lot of them can be left to others to decide. But the man he’s created onscreen here is a fascinating combination of knowingly displayed temperament, keen discernment, wizardly talent, emotional evasion, bewildering about-faces, super-human discipline and, ultimately, childlike vulnerability. In the end, Woodcock may, or may not, be the most powerful and resilient character in the piece, but he’s supremely complex and fascinating to observe.
Rarely has a costume designer’s work been so center-stage as Mark Bridges’ is here; it’s a film overflowing with fabric and what talented people do with it, and Bridges has done a great deal indeed. Mark Tildesley’s production design provides an often claustrophobically elegant backdrop for the intrigue.
After a long association with cinematographer Robert Elswit, Anderson has gone all Steven Soderbergh here by becoming his own director of photography, although he doesn’t acknowledge it; this is a film with no cinematography credit. The director has done a handsome, atmospheric, unflashy job of it, creating a rather hazy, diffused look without overdoing it.
All these good things being said, there is nonetheless no individual contribution to the film’s character and impact more important than Jonny Greenwood’s music. Creating his fourth soundtrack for Anderson, Greenwood has crafted a gorgeously melodious, piano-dominated score that would have been right at home as part of a black-and-white late-1940s romantic melodrama. Remarkably, however, there’s not a trace of retro or campiness to it, as it swoops right in to instantly transport you back to the era and create a mood of turbulent feelings and amorous expectation. As with the film itself, it leaves you wondering: “Where on Earth did this come from?”
Opens: December 25 (Focus Features)
Production: Annapurna Pictures, Joanne Sellar, Ghoulardi Film Company
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville, Camilla Rutherford, Gina McKee, Brian Gleeson, Harriet Sansom Harris, Lujza Richter, Julia Davis
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Screenwriter: Paul Thomas Anderson
Producers: Joanne Sellar, Paul Thomas Anderson, Megan Ellison, Daniel Lupi
Executive producers: Adam Somner, Peter Heslop, Chelsea Barnard
Production designer: Mark Tildesley
Costume designer: Mark Bridges
Editor: Dylan Tichenor
Music: Jonny Greenwood
Casting: Cassandra Kulukundis
132 minutes, R rating