With Daniel Day Lewis, Lesley Manville, Vicky Krieps
Lesley Manville has perfect posture as she marches into the office of her brother’s fashion house, drawing in the viewer with her commanding even military gait. She wears a beautifully tailored dress, her hair is pulled back in a no nonsense coiffure, and she is clearly sure of what she will do next. The space she inhabits has a classic beaux arts design, with high ceilings, the curtains opening the oversize windows to the stylish London circle outside. She joins her brother for their daily breakfast in silence.
Paul Thomas Anderson makes movies about men who are domineering, masterful, yet unable to be intimate or tender with anyone. The Master, There Will be Blood, and Magnolia all feature fascinating, nearly repellent male characters. In Phantom Thread, Daniel Day Lewis is Reynolds Woodcock, as opposite in style to Plainview in There Will Be Blood as you can be. The scene where we watch him shaving, brushing his hair, tying his tie, makes clear how high his aesthetic standards are. With Woodcock’s character, the only person in his life is his sister with a masculine name, Cyril, who executes his every command without being asked. Who would need a wife with such a second in command?
The story unfolds as the brilliant fashion designer is thrown off balance by a woman he tries not to fall in love with, but who has nearly conquered him, the way a mountain climber finally summits the Himalayas.
On the day after he has discarded a woman who demanded his attention at breakfast (you must not make any noise at breakfast in the Woodcock household), he meets a charming, down to earth waitress, Alma (Vickey Krieps) and the rapport is instantaneous. Krieps bears a striking resemblance to Julianne Moore, an actress favored by Anderson in her early days. Anderson has a way of extracting unforgettable performances from his cast, partly because of the strength of his script, its strange hypnotic qualities, and the aura of place.
Phantom Thread refers to the messages sewn into the haute couture garments Woodcock fashions for his clients. Wedding gowns are especially fraught, so carry an anti-curse phrase. It was Woodcock’s mother’s wedding gown that started his career as a designer. A haunting scene features this dress, and casts a fairy tale glow. There are other references to fairy tales, for instance, a walk in the woods to gather mushrooms.
The movie is gorgeous. The 70 millimeter film brings a sumptuous level of detail to everything and a loving care to the photography of the construction of the clothes. All of the scenes are carefully composed, the gowns influenced by the highest couture house. Mark Bridges, the costume designer, did his research well, and makes all of the cast look authentically dressed in the 1950s style. When Daniel Day Lewis pulls on his fuchsia colored socks, I was reminded of something, and was not surprised on learning that they came from the same Italian shop that supplies the pope.
The conflict that arises when Woodcock’s staid rigid world is interfered with because Alma wants him to love her and she wants to treat him with exclusive intimacy leads to plot twists that follow the fairy tale theme.
The movie begins with a good rhythm, where the scenes flow from one to the next based on the story behind it, the actors’ performances, the tension inherent in one cut shifting to the next, pace of editing is just right. It is only in the last 20 minutes that there is a strain in story and the masterly rhythm begins to stall. Still, I found myself reflecting on the movie days afterward, and questioning certain plot points. Phantom Thread is not just entertaining, it is a work of art.