Thread of the class
Fractured masculinity and daddy obsessions have served as thematic pillars of the cinema of Paul Thomas Anderson ever since he debuted with Hard Eight in 1996. But before the formula grew untenable and stale, the control freak Anderson veered off track with his cosmically shaggy detective story Inherent Vice in 2014, and with his free-form 2015 musical documentary Junun.
After the cinematographer-less Junun, Anderson serves as his own director of photography on the impeccably groomed yet quietly unsettling fashion world romance Phantom Thread, and he also created his first true female protagonist (there’s even a mommy obsession in the mix). As the demanding 1950s fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (not a typo), Daniel Day-Lewis may get top billing, but the film belongs to Vicky Krieps as Alma, a beach town waitress who enters Reynolds’ orbit.
Reynolds lives in the same building where his successful fashion house is located, resulting in a meticulously arranged fusion of personal life and creative-slash-work life that also informs his romantic relationships. An “incurable bachelor” and emotionally immature control freak, Reynolds is already discarding a girlfriend when the story opens, speeding off to the coast while his loyal sister Cyril (Lesley Manville, one of Mike Leigh’s favorite chameleons) does his dirty work. There he meets the much younger Alma, and the cycle starts anew.
Reynolds crafts her a dress to initiate their relationship, measuring and belittling Alma as part of his seduction technique. That dress blossoms into a collection, and soon enough Alma is modeling his creations, a muse draped in her own inspiration. From there, her position in his life grows increasingly tenuous—she stands anonymously in a line of seamstresses while Reynolds courts wealthy clients, while Reynolds’ increased nitpicking suggests an imminent breakup—but Alma proves ferociously resourceful.
Despite the luxurious settings, the film is rarely extravagant, favoring understated camera movements and a melancholy color palette. It feels like a Max Ophuls movie directed by John Cassavetes. Many of the most beautiful shots are simple and fleeting, like Reynolds and Alma’s giddy, dashboard-lit faces as they speed through the night.
Daniel Day-Lewis does his usual demanding, powerful, precise yet unpredictable work. He’s basically Marlon Brando multiplied by Fredric March, ho-hum. The part isn’t bellicose and theatrical in the same manner as Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood, but his Reynolds Woodcock is just as much of a force of nature in his own emotionally withholding, hissy fit-having manner. Meanwhile, Krieps is a revelation as Alma, earthy and emotionally pliable to contrast the unbending Reynolds.
Phantom Thread often plays like a reverse Taming of the Shrew, with Alma determined to preserve her position in the House of Woodcock by cutting Reynolds down to size. Anderson dedicated the film to his longtime partner Maya Rudolph and their four children, and a hazily unspecific personal element haunts this story about the romantic power struggles of a demanding, obsessive artist and the woman who affects and protects his work.