Phantom Thread is a pas de trois set to a Jonny Greenwood score, a delicate dance for three in which there’s no clearly dominant player and the relationships between the members of the trio are constantly renegotiated. That’s familiar territory for director Paul Thomas Anderson — Phantom Thread shares a great deal of DNA with his 2012 film The Master. But this time, he’s set his ballet of manners and power struggles in post-war London, in a house of high fashion ruled by the finicky, improbably named genius Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis).
The House of Woodcock specializes in sculptural gowns and suits, made of silk and brocade and fine lace for women of means; Reynolds Woodcock is at its center, aided by his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), who runs the business for him. It’s Cyril who corrals the seamstresses, keeps the trains running on time, and dismisses Woodcock’s muses and mistresses when they’re no longer of any use to him.
Woodcock, as befitting his chosen vocation, is fastidiously attentive to detail and a bit tyrannical about his surroundings, though he rarely raises his voice. Cyril — for whom Woodcock’s term of endearment is “my old so-and-so” — is the only person who can tell him what to do, and even then only sometimes.
But then, into this beautiful, airless world comes Alma (Vicky Krieps), who catches Woodcock’s eye in a hotel restaurant and becomes his muse, model, lover, and — depending on how you look at it — either his downfall or his savior. The result is just the kind of twisted love story that Anderson excels at, and as near a distillation of the filmmaker’s obsessions as one can imagine: Phantom Thread explores power, unorthodox love, and how the weaving together of ego, psychology, and physicality can make us act, at times, against our own self-interest.
A three-way power battle drives Phantom Thread’s tension
Anderson wrote, directed, and shot Phantom Thread himself. He’s a famously exacting filmmaker, and a chamber piece like this, with just a few sets and a handful of characters, lets him play to his visual strengths. But most of the fun of Phantom Thread comes in discerning and unraveling the mental tapestry of its three main players. Woodcock’s attachment to his dead mother, his connection to his sister, and his overbearing and even cruel dedication to his work gets snagged by the addition of Alma, who seems at first yielding. “I feel as if I’ve been looking for you for a very long time,” Woodcock tells her in the first blush of his infatuation.
“You found me,” she replies. “Whatever you do, do it carefully.”
Alma is deliberately written as a blank slate; we know nothing about her at all, not even where she is from. She seems like the kind of woman for whom the term “demure” was coined, though she isn’t afraid, during her first evening date with Woodcock, to challenge him to a staring contest. She can return his gaze. But soon she’s under his spell, like every other woman he comes into contact with.
So when she begins to flex her will, it’s properly startling to everyone — especially Woodcock, who is horrified to discover that she isn’t just cheeky, but actually has a mind of her own. Meanwhile, her decision to make her own decisions also affects her relationship with Cyril, who seems to develop a grudging respect for the younger woman.
Still, Alma and Cyril are clearly fighting a battle against each other. There’s no Mrs. Woodcock in the house, but they both answer to the name. (The full nature of the relationship between Woodcock and his sister is left very much up to interpretation.) Who actually rules this house?
Phantom Thread might be a bit too tightly wound for its own good
Whether Phantom Thread numbers among Anderson’s best films has been remarkably difficult for me to decide, though that’s not unusual for his work. He excels at making the sort of film that demands you rewatch it to figure out what he’s trying to accomplish, and then maybe again to truly appreciate it.
Phantom Thread barely reveals itself on first viewing. (In fact, I was stunned when it ended, thinking it was just arriving at the second act.) In that way, it mimics Woodcock himself, who is in the habit of sewing reminders of his mother into the clothing he makes. The movie seeds the tiniest of clues about what it’s about throughout the film in glances, images, and gestures, but like Woodcock, it gets off on withholding. It wants you to work for its love.
For most filmmakers, that’s a bold move. For Anderson, it’s de rigueur, and what his acolytes (like myself) have come to expect from him. His most accessible film, Magnolia, is a wild, sprawling examination of love, loneliness, and forgiveness; his historical epic There Will Be Blood presents two greedy men who are at each other’s throats, against a backdrop of oil and fire; his semi-rom-com Punch Drunk Love serves up a deliberately kooky sensibility that can be off-putting to the uninitiated. And that’s not even counting a film like his porn-industry-saga Boogie Nights, or his Thomas Pynchon adaptation Inherent Vice.
Ultimately, that whiff of inaccessibility is what many love about Anderson’s work, because it comes from his furious insistence on his own artistic vision; letting yourself lock into his way of seeing the world can be both entertaining and disorienting. Phantom Thread certainly fits that bill. The film is quite funny, and it’s also determined to keep us out of its head. It’s also a gorgeous work of art, with Anderson’s frequent collaborators like Greenwood and costume designer Mark Bridges rounding out the House of Woodcock’s world. And then there’s the stunning work of Day-Lewis (in what he claims will be his last film role), Manville, and Krieps, whose physical performances as a trio are so polished and pregnant with meaning that they could practically appear in a silent film and it would still work.
And yet, after two viewings and a lot of thinking, I’m still not sure about this one. At its best, Phantom Thread is arch, electric, and a little kinky. But it lacks some of the reckless abandon of Anderson’s most memorable work — Joaquin Phoenix running from wall to wall at Philip Seymour Hoffman’s command in The Master, the “I drink your milkshake” bowling alley scene in There Will Be Blood, the brilliantly unhinged “Sister Christian” scene near the end of Boogie Nights, Tom Cruise’s jarring turn as a proto-MRA motivational speaker in Magnolia. For Anderson purists and couture aficionados, Phantom Thread is still a feast. But for many others, it’s likely to feel, at times, like it’s gotten a bit too bound up in its own stitching.
Phantom Thread opens in limited release on December 25.