Like the fashion designer at the center of his latest film, Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson doesn’t seem particularly interested in being trendy or chic. Though the writer-director was a vanguard leading a new generation of iconic filmmakers coming to prominence in the late ’90s, as he now nears 50, he’s increasingly shrugging off the eye-catching stylishness of his earlier work. Thread is a film about tailored simplicity, creating elegance not through flash but mastery of craft; making every line and every cut matter. It’s unlikely to be a new favorite for any of Anderson’s die-hard fans, but it’s an undeniably striking piece, with more hidden in the stitching than its presentation first suggests.
In what’s unfortunately said to be his final performance, Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Reynolds Woodcock (or, more often, Mr. Woodcock, surely to the chagrin of Billy Bob Thornton), a couture designer of ’50s London. He describes himself as a “confirmed bachelor”—but not for the reasons one would naturally assume of a well-dressed, middle-aged, single dressmaker. Woodcock, like so many geniuses, is as obsessed with himself as he is his work. With almost sociopathic charm, he easily woos women and invites them into his life, where they become less partners than muses—life-size dolls for him to swaddle in fabric before casually discarding them when he loses interest. Or, to be more precise, before his outwardly callous business partner and sister (Lesley Manville) takes care of it for him. And that’s just one of the ways Woodcock is insulated from anything that might upset him.
Fastidious to a point nearing mental illness, Woodcock is fixated on details, order, and routine. This translates to him being a standout designer who’s also impossible to live with. At the film’s open, the latest in Woodcock’s line of not-quite-girlfriends is about to be dismissed for creating conflict during his morning tea, throwing him off for the rest of the day. He’s practically a cranky baby that must not be wakened—right down to a pronounced yearning for “mother” that rivals even the leads of Guy Maddin’s ouevre.
Alma (Vicky Krieps), a rosy-cheeked young immigrant found waitressing in a countryside restaurant, is Woodcock’s latest catch. While she’s smitten with him, and he seems equally taken, her clumsy, unrefined naïveté soon threatens to unravel their relationship like it has so many others. And, at least to an outsider, that seems like a pretty good thing for Alma, given what a domineering, uncompromising prick the Lincoln of Fashion Week is. Yet, thanks in part to her narration that runs through much of the film, a picture slowly forms to reveal just how their deeply uneven, deeply screwed up relationship ends up being quite a bit more substantial—if definitely not more healthy—for each of them.
Phantom Thread isn’t just your typical period piece about a tumultuous romance, though. Anderson has made something much more wryly comic than advertised but also unnervingly tense, the film’s corset strings slowly tightening into something of a Hitchcockian thriller. The nearly omnipresent score, from Radiohead’s always excellent Jonny Greenwood (Anderson’s fourth collaboration with the There Will Be Blood composer), begins as pleasant chamber music before subtly descending into something haunting and sparse as Anderson’s film grows more claustrophobic. Woodcock’s routine becomes our routine; like Alma, we’re stuck in his home (which doubles as his design studio), stuck in the same booth in the same restaurant he frequents; forced to focus on this work, his structured life, and practically nothing else. (Heightening that sense of contained isolation, Day-Lewis, Krieps, and Manville are nearly the only speaking roles in the film, and broad establishing shots were seemingly verboten.) With subdued menace, all this escalates to a climax that’s very nearly laughable yet, in context, provides what in retrospect feels like perhaps the only satisfying closure possible—an outrageously goofy bow that somehow ties together an otherwise staid ensemble. (It also gives the film a strange commonality with Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, the year’s other rooster-in-a-henhouse film involving gorgeously candlelit dinners and a soundtrack from a pop artist.)
With Phantom Thread, one of the greatest American directors alive has delivered his least American film, a historical drama concerned less with plot than human interaction, characterization, and the simple beauty of watching skilled hands at work. There is something captivating, almost magical, about that, though, and here, Anderson gives it to us pleated: as if observing the artistry of a fictional fashion house wasn’t fascinating enough (and it is), we also get to observe the impossible gifts of Day-Lewis and Anderson folded beneath. Still, it would be nice to have a fun one again, P.T.A.
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Studio: Focus Features
Runtime: 130 minutes
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Leslie Manville