The ads for writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread,” starring the great Daniel Day-Lewis as a famed couturier in 1950s London, suggest a stately period production in the Merchant Ivory mode. What soon becomes clear, though, upon seeing the movie, is how inexorably creepy it is. Its antecedents are not Merchant Ivory movies but, rather, “Rebecca” and “Vertigo” – except it’s even freakier than those films. It’s closer in some ways to “Fifty Shades of Grey,” but made by real artists and not pulpsters, and minus any overt sex. The eroticism is all in the fittings of fabric and the power plays of a couple who make Mr. and Mrs. de Winters in “Rebecca” seem like Ward and June Cleaver from “Leave It to Beaver.”
Day-Lewis’s Reynolds Woodcock is the imperious impresario of the House of Woodcock, with its Georgian London townhouse and its armada of seamstresses. His exclusive clientele includes socialites, celebrities, and royalty, but he disdains the trappings of high society. He cares only that his moneyed clients are worthy of his creations. (The film’s costume designer is Mark Bridges.) In one startling scene, he is so aghast at the sight of a drunken woman in one of his gowns that he summarily has it removed from her.
Reynolds regularly attracts and discards women, and his steely sister, Cyril (the marvelous Lesley Manville), who alone among his entourage has the power to rebuff him, keeps a beady eye on the procession of consorts. Both Reynolds and Cyril meet their match in immigrant Alma (Vicky Krieps, equally marvelous, in a very difficult role), whom Reynolds first meets at a seaside country inn where she is waitressing. She is smitten, as is he, and soon he is measuring her for a custom dress.
This dress-fitting sequence is their true courtship, but it also reveals their developing dynamic. He lavishes his attentions on her form while at the same time citing its flaws; she accepts his autocracy but doesn’t shrink from it. In her own passive-aggressive
way, she gives as good as she gets, and she becomes his live-in companion. He also makes her one of his models, but she is also, surreptitiously and perhaps not altogether knowingly, molding him as well.
It’s a folie à deux that only becomes more intricate as the duet becomes more combative. Living with Reynolds is no picnic – even the scrape of his companion’s knife across buttered toast at breakfast can ruin his day. His pathological persnicketiness, his mania for detail, is both his genius and his incubus. His specialty is sewing little trinkets into the linings of his dresses, and this fits perfectly with the elusiveness of his life. Symbolically, if not actually, Alma exposes those secret trifles. But she is no redeemer, at least not for most of the movie. She isn’t trying to normalize Reynolds, which in any case would be an impossibility. Instead, in a development right out of gothic melodrama, she holds onto him in a way that demonstrates she is just as deranged as he is. (To her great credit, Krieps never telegraphs any of this for us.) For much of the movie, we have been led to believe it is Reynolds who is the nut-case genius. Now we realize he has competition. Like I say, a folie à deux.
Why should any of this matter to us? Aside from the terrific ensemble acting and the pleasures of watching an expertly designed human board game being played out, I think Anderson is also getting at something deeper. Many of his movies, most conspicuously “There Will Be Blood” and “The Master,” are about grand-scale obsessives who ultimately bring about their own downfall. In “Phantom Thread,” he is showcasing not an oil baron or a spiritual guru, as in those films, but an artist. The self-immolation of an artist who is both inspired and undone by his muse is the true subject of “Phantom Thread.” In the film’s final jolt of perversity, Anderson holds out a halcyon hope for these two. In their complicity with each other’s manias, he sees a kind of salvation.
One last note: Day-Lewis has announced that this will be his last film. Far be it for me to tell him how to live his life, but might perhaps our greatest living actor want to reconsider? As Reynolds, he is so galvanizing that the slightest flicker of his hand, of his brow, opens up for us a wide thoroughfare into this man’s stricken soul. What is so bafflingly fascinating about “Phantom Thread” is that Reynolds is an ascetic at the center of a movie that is anything but. The dry ice in this film burns with a hothouse intensity. Grade: A- (Rated R for language.)