This is a very strange movie, as one might intuit from its odd title. Paul Thomas Anderson is nothing if not unpredictable, and his latest effort bears no obvious resemblance to his other work except for his keen interest in obsessive characters (think of There Will Be Blood and The Master). On the plus side, Phantom Thread creates a very specific, immersive world and feels tangibly real. It also provides Daniel Day-Lewis a role he can sink his teeth into.
Day-Lewis plays a self-absorbed fashion designer in 1950s London named Reynolds Woodcock. He lives and works with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) in an elegant townhouse where the tiniest change to their daily regimen throws him off-course. It is Cyril’s job to make sure things run smoothly, which they generally do. She also keeps a close watch on her brother’s mistresses, who (we gather) come and go on a regular basis.
But his latest acquisition, a foreign-born waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps), has staying power and a level of determination that the Woodcocks have never encountered before. She doesn’t just disrupt the designer’s routine: she wants to possess him and will stop at nothing to capture his heart. She even wins over the cynical Cyril.
Phantom Thread takes us inside the workings of a high-end design house in this period, with a regular staff of seamstresses who work in almost total silence. They know what is expected of them and execute Woodcock’s designs with meticulous attention to detail under his watchful eye. His most valued clients receive special attention.
Woodcock has sexual desires, but they ebb and flow depending on his mood and the pressures of work. Alma has a room adjacent to his, but knocking on his door does not necessarily gain her entrance.
All of this is laid out in leisurely fashion, in a hushed tone that is accompanied by elegant music on the soundtrack. (The movie opens with a lengthy rendition of Victor Young’s “My Foolish Heart,” written for the 1949 movie of the same name and played by Oscar Peterson.) Classical music dominates the picture, along with original scoring by Jonny Greenwood.
At the core of all this is what Anderson describes as a gothic romance: an intense, sometimes perverse, attraction between Alma and Reynolds that flirts with black comedy at times. Krieps is a major discovery who has worked primarily in German films and television; we’re certain to see more of her after this showcase.
One could do worse than to stare at these actors’ faces as they convey a variety of subtly expressed emotions, but Phantom Thread is so insular that one has to wonder where it is headed and why. One can admire the performances, the production design (by Mark Tildesley) and of course the costumes by longtime Anderson colleague Mark Bridges. But I’m not sure that the odd, off-putting story is worth all this lavish attention to detail.
Depicting obsession is a trap for any filmmaker. He or she defies the audience to remain interested in someone whose behavior is abnormal. Having Daniel Day-Lewis portraying the character is an enormous asset, but it may not be enough. It wasn’t for me.