For his final acting job Daniel Day-Lewis has chosen “Phantom Thread,” a psychosexual story set in the world of fashion. Directed by his “There Will Be Blood” collaborator Paul Thomas Anderson, it’s an unpredictable film that some will find brilliant, others just plain odd.
Set against the backdrop of 1950s London, Day-Lewis plays fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock. A perfectionist, he is an elegant combination of neurosis, talent and impatient whim. “If breakfast isn’t right,” explains sister and secretary Cyril (Lesley Manville), “it’s very hard for him to recover through the rest of the day.” A coiled spring, he puts the haughty into haute couture.
Never married, he has had many relationships with women, tossing them aside when he’s done. “Marriage would make me deceitful,” he says. “I don’t ever want that.” His only real pleasure is derived from his work, the act of creation.
His latest companion is Alma (Vicky Krieps), a delicate country waitress who becomes his muse and lover, even though, as he says, she butters her bread too loudly at breakfast. (To be fair Anderson amps up the sound so the buttering of toast sounds like the Indy 500.) “It’s hard to ignore,” he sneers, “like you just rode a horse across the floor.” Her purpose in Reynolds’s life is purely functional; she is a perfect model for his lithe designs. “You have no breasts,” he says. “It is my job to give you some if I choose to do so.” She wants more and even though her attempts at normalcy are met with scorn, she finds a way to make herself irreplaceable in his life.
“Phantom Thread” almost feels like two movies bound by the same characters. The first hour is a character study turned lush romance. Reynolds displays his controlling ways early on, wiping off Alma’s lipstick with the words, “I want to really see you.” Is it romantic or borderline abusive? Later, still on their first date he gets her out of her clothes and into one of his dresses. She is swept off her feet, despite his callously nonchalant behaviour. We soon learn she is no pushover, daring to stand up to the great man in a battle of wills.
The second half is a study of power and relationships with a menacing twist. Enough said. No spoilers here but it becomes about the need to shed routine in favour of changes and challenges in any pairing. It’s part “Masterpiece Theatre,” part Hitchcock and all Paul Thomas Anderson in his uncompromised glory.
It is luscious, beautifully appointed with production design and clothes that the perfectionist Woodcock himself would appreciate.
Krieps is a poised presence who more than holds her own against Day-Lewis. Subtly graceful with a spine of steel, she is simultaneously powerful and vulnerable. It is tremendous work and a perfect counterpoint to Day-Lewis’s more visceral work.
The three-time Oscar winner does not hand in a showy performance. It’s one built out of small details that radiate both his narcissism and insecurities. His curmudgeonly behaviour is sometimes funny—“Right now I am only admiring my own gallantry,” he says during one argument—but never slips into a tortured artist caricature. He’s a charming snake with a perfectly foppish bowtie and Day-Lewis binds together all the character’s idiosyncrasies to create a person who, on one hand, always sews a lock of his mother’s hair into his suit jackets, just above the heart, while on the other rails at Alma who has the audacity to bring him tea without asking permission. “The tea is going out… but the interruption is staying right here with me.”
Manville, as sister Cyril, earns most of the film’s laughs, perfectly delivering jabs and wilting looks.
In “Phantom Thread” Anderson takes a “Pretty Woman” style premise and elevates it to high art.