Paul Thomas Anderson’s enigmatic romance “Phantom Thread” is a mystery. Not of the murder kind, but of the heart, posing questions of love, power and submission. The mystery? Who’s in control? It’s a question that almost can’t ever be answered. The film is the kind of puzzle that’s both frustrating and joyful to put together – the full picture isn’t revealed until the very end, in a revelation that reveals the poignant truth to be found in vulnerability.
Star Daniel Day-Lewis claims to be retiring after this (though that always remains to be seen). Working once again with Anderson, he gives a transformed performance as a genius dressmaker in 1950 London. “Dressmaker” is too pedestrian a term for what Reynolds Woodcock does, who crafts hand-sewn couture creations for the rich and the royal.
He lives and works among women, shepherding a flock of seamstresses in his home. His business partner and closest confidant is his sister, Cyril, a steely, perfectly coiffed and simply perfect Lesley Manville. We come to suspect that despite appearances, she wears the pants in this duo. No one tells Reynolds to shut up as chicly as she does.
We find him searching for a new companion, his next live-in model and muse. He finds her in an unrefined waitress in a seaside resort restaurant, where he delivers the coyest, most decadent breakfast order of all time, which is in itself a seduction. Alma (Vicky Krieps) is a naive, coltish girl, but like a sheath of fine silk, Reynolds sees potential in what he might shape her into, snipping, cutting and sewing her into the perfect woman. He just never suspected that underneath that seemingly pliant surface, there might be more strength to her than meets the eye.
Simply describing the facts of the story flattens it, and doesn’t come close to communicating what a heady, mysterious and sensual spell Anderson casts with “Phantom Thread.” Like Reynolds, the film holds you at arm’s length, keeps you remote, unsure and unsettled. But soon Alma’s force is too strong, and we happily submit to her will. If you go in expecting a Daniel Day-Lewis movie, you’ll walk away with a Vicky Krieps movie, and we’re all the better for it. The Luxembourgian actress will sweep you off your feet.
“Phantom Thread” is even better upon second viewing, when you know where it’s going. It becomes easier to plunge into this sumptuous world, to laugh at its small, arch moments of humor. Rather than feeling unsettled, you can marvel at the swirl of psychological control and chaos, which is mirrored in Jonny Greenwood’s score, blending classical pieces with his own original compositions, creating a sense of pleasant agita.
It’s a tale of narcissism and ego, both artistic and romantic, and how to conquer it. As an artist, as a lover, Reynolds Woodcock has gotten away with incorrigible fastidiousness, emotional abuse and fussy entitlement. Witnessing Alma’s resistance to this male narcissism is simply a joy. “Phantom Thread” is the kind of film you’ll mull over and discuss, a masterpiece that doesn’t even let on that it is until it’s over.
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