Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson’s eighth feature, bears little ostensible resemblance to his previous films. It’s his first set primarily outside the United States. It lacks the eager camera moves of Boogie Nights or Magnolia, the excoriated Americana of There Will Be Blood or The Master, or the Cheech and Chong-flavoured bawdiness of Inherent Vice. Yet, it is explicitly and inescapably an Anderson joint, much to the relief of many who feared some kind of sub-Fifty Shades souflée with Oxbridge accents.
Phantom Thread is all about the power of the muse. It’s true to Anderson’s great muses: limitless endeavour, male insecurity and the redemptive power of families of all shapes and sizes. From pornography, to oil, and now to haute couture fashion, Anderson is held rapt by people who are painfully committed to what they do. There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview may have been greed made flesh, but the man knew how to drill an oil well. The erstwhile Plainview, Daniel Day-Lewis (Another consummate professional), returns to Anderson’s world to play Reynolds Woodcock, chief designer at the House of Woodcock. In a booming post-war London, Reynolds is the seductively-affected and gifted couturier to socialites and foreign royalty. This prissy, pristine peacock of a man sees Day-Lewis at his most restrained. His voice and look, both thin and reedy, lie somewhere between James Mason and a deathbed convert. No skinning rabbits or declarations of drainage here; Woodcock would blow away in a gust. Yet, the surface cloth only tells half a story.
Wunderkind directors seem to spend much of their time sidestepping the shadows of the masters, even when they actively reference them. Having nodded (Bowed, really) to Altman and Huston in the past, Anderson focuses his attention on early Alfred Hitchcock in Phantom Thread. Borrowing adroitly from Rebecca, the House of Woodcock becomes our Manderley, complete with its own Mrs. Danvers. Reynolds’ sister Cyril (Lesley Manville, a study in purse-mouthed threat) runs the business affairs of the House of Woodcock, and keeps the delicate Reynolds in the habits to which he’s accustomed. This sometimes means turfing out his latest mistress once she starts to get on his nerves. For as oddly close as these siblings seem, their casual cruelty is what marks them from the start. Reynolds takes any interruption to his routine as a threat, and Cyril is there to remove them like benign tumours.
As is the way of these things, something comes to upend all this order. On a weekend away to a seaside town, Reynolds encounters a waitress named Alma, a character doubtlessly named for Hitchcock’s long-suffering wife, Alma Reville. In this role, Luxembourgeois actress Vicky Krieps is offered a plum calling card, and she absolutely delivers. Resembling a young Meryl Streep, Krieps commands the screen with a radiant confidence. Alma and Reynolds first meet in his hotel, as she takes his order for what appears to be half the menu. Flirtation is written on both their faces. Later, when he takes her for an impromptu dress fitting, Krieps’ face is unsure whether to smile brighter or collapse, as Reynolds offers Alma an accentuated bosom with a few cuts of fabric. He can make her whatever he wants her to be, but the most thing she wants is to be wanted.
Phantom Thread is an unusual love story, at once perverse, tender and strangely prescient. Reynolds and Alma’s courtship is pleasant and carefree, but it’s only when familiarity and the dreaded routine creep back in that proceedings threaten to sour. Observe how tense a breakfast can be when toast is buttered too loudly; passive aggression is Phantom Thread’s stock-in-trade. As the initial romance threatens to go the way of Reynolds’ other mistresses, Alma decides to make her presence felt. She can be a living mannequin for a dress auction, but she will not be ignored by a man she loves. If Anderson’s films teach us anything, it’s that our passions will make us do strange things.
The interplay between the three leads is an unstoppable driving force. Reynolds’ cruelty seems to be as much a product of Cyril’s hen-pecking as from any active disdain, but Alma is determined to break this habit. Day Lewis’ wilting wallflower allows his co-stars to shine, as Cyril and Alma begin an unlikely battle for Reynolds’ soul. Krieps rises to the challenge with aplomb, switching between naivete and grit in the blink of an eye, while Manville delivers venom wrapped in the delicious verbosity of Anderson’s screenplay. Words become stealth bombs in gilded battlefields. A discussion between Reynolds and Alma about asparagus and butter becomes an absurd and hurtful moment so gradually, you’ll scarcely notice.
If Anderson is homaging Hitchcock in his narrative, the look and feel of Phantom Thread is a melange of other worthy nods. The 35mm cinematography (by Anderson himself, though he gives as much credit to his camera crew as himself) recalls Powell and Pressburger in its grainy primary colours and bleached backgrounds. Mark Bridges’ costumes are necessarily beautiful, though the star of the production has to be Jonny Greenwood’s score. Every character and setting seems catered for in its eclectic yet unobtrusive mix of influences, from Bernard Herrmann to Leos Janacek. It’s a masterwork.
It’s handsome, it’s sharp and it’s shockingly funny on occasion, but what is Phantom Thread about? Like so much of Anderson’s work, it’s hard to say, at least on a first viewing. As with his last number of features, the surface pleasantries may be enough to rope you back in to discover its hidden depths. Phantom Thread is certainly the director’s most accessible film since Punch-Drunk Love. Yet, much like that film, this new work can sneak up on you with hints of insight and emotion one mightn’t expect, not least from a period piece about high fashion. When Alma and Reynolds seeks to retrieve a misbegotten wedding dress from a wealthy client (Bebe Glazer found love, Frasier fans!), the tenacity and courage they bring out in each other feels genuine. Like all Anderson films, this comes peppered with moments of farcical humour and oddity, but they slot into a world where all things begin to feel strange, not least that little thing called love. Much like love, Phantom Thread starts out charmingly, before it mushrooms into something altogether unexpected and wonderful.