Film of the week: Phantom Thread unravels the relationship between an artist and his muse

Daniel Day-Lewis stars as a chilly 1950s couturier resisting romantic intimacy in Paul Thomas Anderson’s slyly comic Hitchcockian drama – his most ambitious and surprising film yet.

One of Sight & Sound’s best films of 2018.

Adam Nayman
Updated:

from our February 2018 issue

Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock and Vicky Krieps as Alma in Phantom Thread (2017)

Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock and Vicky Krieps as Alma in Phantom Thread (2017)

Control freaks abound in the films of Paul Thomas Anderson: takes one to know one, as the saying goes. Phantom Thread’s high-end fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock, who custom-makes dresses for royalty and hoi polloi in London circa 1950s, is as much a model of obsessive-compulsive mania as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood (2007); this master-dressmaker works in softer and more pliant materials than the wildcat oilman, but is similarly uncompromising about his process and results.

In contrast to his much lauded, Oscar-winning performance in Blood, Daniel Day-Lewis doesn’t shoot the works in Phantom Thread. In fact, in what he has declared will be his final role, he cedes the movie to his much less heralded co-star, the Luxembourgeois actress Vicky Krieps. It’s a gesture that is both in keeping with the script’s tricky, point-of-view-shifting structure and with Anderson’s own imaginative immersion – after two decades of fixating on macho masochism – inside a female consciousness. It’s a reversal that makes the director’s eighth feature his most ambitious and surprising.

In Inherent Vice (2014), Anderson worked dutifully to Thomas Pynchon’s epic, novelistic template and skilfully integrated his own obsessions about damaged societal outsiders and the mythology of his native Los Angeles. Phantom Thread, which is Anderson’s first movie set fully outside California, serves a different Master. Its clear dramatic model is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 adaptation of Rebecca, in which a nervous, untutored young woman is brought into the confidence (and marriage bed) of a mysterious, fabulously prosperous older man only to find herself dwarfed in his affections by the memory of his departed first wife. PTA’s cinephile-prankster side finds expression in naming his Second Mrs de Winter stand-in Alma – a possible salute to Hitchcock’s wife and editor Alma Reville (and Hitchcock himself is paid homage in the Day-Lewis character’s surname).

Phantom Thread (2017)

The Rebecca figure, meanwhile, is not a dead spouse but, in another plausibly Hitchcockian nod, the spectre/structuring absence of Reynolds’s late mother, who did a number on her son to the point that he’s become England’s suavest, most seductive commitment-phobe. Dashing and handsome when he goes out on the town and given to massive appetites – he meets Alma when she serves him a hilariously heavy breakfast while working in a restaurant in the countryside – Reynolds is a Bluebeard whose manor is home not to the corpses of ex-wives but to a wealth of dresses, each measured to the contours of live-in lovers long since discarded as easily as their formal wear.

At first, Alma feels like an outsider in the House of Woodcock (go on, read that sentence and try to deny that this is a comedy). But she soon grows cosy in her role as Reynolds’s prize mannequin, assuming pride of place in the household and unnerving Reynolds’s older sister Cyril, played by Lesley Manville. (In the Rebecca-esque schema of the script, Cyril is an update of the sinister, manipulative housekeeper Mrs Danvers; she’s there to keep the man of the house from succumbing to true romance.)

It’s when Alma decides that she wants more, and Reynolds begins to worry about what that intimacy is going to do to his aura of aloof impenetrability, that Phantom Thread begins to cultivate its devastatingly funny domestic subtexts. Not only does Krieps hold her own with Day-Lewis in the scenes where Alma begins to impose her will on Reynolds, but she sustains Anderson’s precarious perspectival conceit, which is to get inside the mindset of a (supposedly) great artist’s muse (basically what Darren Aronofsky tried and failed to do last year in mother!).

Lesley Manville as Cyril Woodcock

Lesley Manville as Cyril Woodcock

The tension between Anderson’s wicked sense of humour and his immaculate craftsmanship – the latter placed in even sharper relief by scenes depicting Reynolds’s own meticulous process, legible but not underlined as an allegory for filmmaking – is potent stuff. It’s made even more so by the relative sense of formal restraint. Acting for the first time as his own cinematographer, Anderson opts for a trim efficiency of camera movement that’s so much more refined than his brash 1990s features that he could be a different filmmaker.

At the same time, the cloistered, claustrophobic compositions and precise, intricate stitching of Dylan Tichenor’s editing don’t delimit the script’s expansive, suggestive ideas about creativity and co-dependency, nor do they constrain the interpretative spaciousness of a work that critiques the allure of surfaces without tarnishing its own. Phantom Thread’s apparent severity is a brilliant disguise that only really unravels in retrospect: what’s underneath is a battle-of-the-sexes comedy that ruthlessly strips away layers of archetype and artifice to arrive at its maker’s most nakedly happily-ever-after ending to date – a resolution whose casual insanity bypasses Hitchcock, makes a beeline for Buñuel, and gets there in one piece.

 

 

In the February 2018 issue of Sight & Sound

The needle and the damage done

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, his first movie outside the US, is a gothic romance set in 1950s London. Here he talks about the rigid world of haute couture, the English class system and working with Daniel Day-Lewis on what the actor says will be his last film. By James Bell.

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