Reynolds Woodcock, a couturier plying his trade in London in the 1950s, has a habit of sewing secret messages into his garments. (“Never cursed” is the blessing stitched in lavender thread that he slips into the hem of a wedding gown commissioned by a Middle Eastern princess.) These invisible traces of his hand — hidden meanings in the literal sense — signify that his dresses are more than luxurious commodities. They are works of art, obscurely and yet unmistakably saturated with the passion and personality of their creator.
It hardly seems an accident that Paul Thomas Anderson has inscribed his monogram in the title of his eighth feature, Phantom Thread, which chronicles a few chapters in Reynolds’ fictional life and career. This is a profoundly, intensely, extravagantly personal film. I don’t mean autobiographical. I know little and care less about the details of Anderson’s personal life. Whether or not his longtime partner, the actress and comedian Maya Rudolph, has ever cooked him a mushroom omelette is a matter of complete indifference to me.
Not every movie about an artist is a self-portrait of its director, but Phantom Thread almost offhandedly lays out intriguing analogies between Reynolds’ metier and Anderson’s. The fashion designer, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, turns drawings into drama, manipulating colour and movement and the human form to construct a material object that is also artificial, idealised and fantastical — a commodity that impersonates a dream. He is assisted in his labour by a crew of disciplined artisans who cut and stitch his ideas into usable form. (This may be the place to note that the editor of Phantom Thread is Dylan Tichenor. Mark Bridges designed the costumes. Anderson served as his own director of photography.)
The result of this collective toil is a singular vessel for beauty and pleasure, subject to the whims of the market and the vagaries of taste and therefore easy to trivialise. It’s just a movie. It’s just a dress. When Reynolds’ sister and business partner, Cyril (Lesley Manville), informs him of the departure of a longtime client for a house she regards as more “chic,” the designer has a small tantrum. The word disgusts him, not least because it expresses the vulgarity of the environment in which he must pursue his lofty visions.
That discrepancy — between an exquisite sensibility and a world of grubby, shallow materialism — may explain some of the temperamental quirks that Reynolds shares with his creator. Over the years, especially since There Will Be Blood, Anderson has repeatedly manifested his indifference to the fashions and conventions of contemporary filmmaking. In particular, he disdains the careful, self-conscious husbanding of themes and messages that preoccupies many of his peers. He always seems more interested in what his movies are than in what they’re about or who they might be for.
Phantom Thread is not as hermetic as The Master or as loosey-goosey as Inherent Vice. It’s a chamber piece, romantic and baroque in equal measure, with arresting harmonies and ravishing changes of tone. (This might be the place to note that Jonny Greenwood composed the score). Like There Will Be Blood, it casts Day-Lewis as an avatar of obsession, driven this time by the pursuit of aesthetic perfection rather than money and power. But whereas Daniel Plainview in the earlier film was a vector of pure, demonic ambition, Reynolds Woodcock bemusedly discovers himself to be one leg of a complicated emotional triangle.
The other sides are Cyril and Alma (Vicky Krieps), a non-British waitress in a provincial British restaurant who becomes Reynolds’ model, mistress and muse. Usually this is a temporary assignment. We briefly meet Alma’s predecessor, Johanna (Camilla Rutherford), who annoys Reynolds at breakfast and is dismissed off-screen by Cyril, with one of Reynold’s old dresses as a consolation prize.
Johanna’s sin is to request some of her lover’s attention, a demand he regards as intrusive and distracting. That dynamic will repeat itself with Alma, who butters her toast too noisily, pours tea with too much splashing and boldly asserts her right to exist as something more than an ornament in the Woodcock household. The battle of wills that ensues — a two-front war for Alma, who must contend with both Woodcock siblings — is the film’s dramatic furnace and its comic engine. The three main performances are each as richly textured and subtly shaded as the clothes.
Day-Lewis composes a symphony of moods: sardonic, melancholy, inspired, impatient. But he is matched by Krieps, an actress from Luxembourg as canny and unintimidated as Alma herself. Is this collaboration or competition? A tango or a tennis match? Whatever it is, this partnership is thrilling to watch: funny, wrenching, full of large and small surprises.
The difference between melodrama and comedy is a matter of perspective. Alma, Cyril and Reynolds are all, in their various ways, supremely witty people, capable of underlining the absurdity of their situations with a well-arched eyebrow or a devastating remark.They are acutely sensitive as well. What is painful to them is sometimes funny to us. The reverse is also true. Like a garment that can be worn with the lining on the outside,
The Phantom Thread reverses itself, almost imperceptibly flipping from Reynolds’ point of view to Alma’s and back again. She succumbs, at first, to what is most likely a well-practised campaign of seduction: Reynolds flirts with her at breakfast, invites her to dinner, takes her back to his country house and sets about making her a dress. What she regards as her physical flaws — small breasts, broad shoulders, wide hips — he sees as signs of perfection. She is dazzled by his ability to be dazzled by her.
But then, when the spell seems about to wear off, Alma refuses to let it. She rejects the shabby bargain Reynolds offers her, which demands the complete suppression of her will in exchange for his occasional recognition of her existence. “I live here,” she says to a client who might otherwise have assumed she was just another seamstress.
She fights for her position in the household, trying to outmanoeuvre Cyril and to force Reynolds to recognise her as his equal. There is some temerity in this, and some novelty in the way Anderson depicts their relationship. The wives of artists in movies and literature tend to be doormats or helpmeets, and their psychic anguish and creative fire rarely move from background to centre stage.
Is Alma a feminist heroine? Some version of that question is likely to fuel more than a few post-screening arguments. Your answer may depend on what you think of the mushroom omelette that is the movie’s spoiler-proof surprise. There are other things to talk about. On first viewing, the captivating strangeness of the mood and the elegant threading of the plot are likely to hold your attention, but later you can go back to savour the lustrous colours, the fine-grained performances and the romantic mystery that holds the whole thing together.
What kind of love story is Phantom Thread? The wrenching tale of a woman’s love for a man and a man’s love for his work. A dry, comic study of the asymmetries and conflicts at the heart of a marriage. A refined gothic nightmare in the manner of Henry James. A perverse psychological fable of unchecked ego and unhinged desire. That’s a partial catalogue, and one that can’t quite capture how bizarre this movie is. Or how bizarrely true to life — to art, to love, to itself — it feels.
Don’t miss it
Phantom Thread releases in the UAE on February 1.