The last time Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis teamed up on screen, we got “There Will Be Blood,” a stern, brutally realized epic on the poisonous lust of capitalism, but viewers expecting a retread of that collaboration’s sparse, rustic aesthetic will be pleasantly surprised. “Phantom Thread” is similarly built around an engrossing performance from Day-Lewis—in what he says will be his final performance—only this time, the fruit bore from that starting point tree is far sweeter.
Day-Lewis stars as Reynolds Woodcock, a fashion designer in ‘50s London. With his similarly minded sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), Reynolds lives a hermetically sealed, purposefully curated existence. Everything from his routine to his living quarters to his meals are as meticulous and fussed over as the ornate dresses he devotes his life to making. The film’s form follows suit, with loping camera movements and expertly arranged frames designed to mimic Reynolds’ personal style. Even the score, from frequent Anderson collaborator Jonny Greenwood, possesses a mellifluous quality unlike his usually stirring dissonance. It’s the antithesis of the mud-caked, oil-slicked canvas painted around the cold heart of “There Will Be Blood’s” Daniel Plainview.
When we meet Reynolds and his perfectly crafted world, we see how poorly outsiders fit inside it, as one of his lovers sits as the uncomfortable third wheel between he and Cyril. His sister offers to politely dispatch this companion whose welcome has expired and their relationship unintentionally echoes every Batman story where doting butler Alfred must handle a break-up on busy playboy Bruce Wayne’s behalf. Only it’s not a tireless war on crime that occupies Reynolds, but an obsessive pursuit of tasteful refinement.
“Phantom Thread” being a romance at heart means this timely split opens the way for a new meet cute, with Reynolds finding a new flame in Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress he’s immediately beguiled by, both for her shape and her efficacy for remembering his absurd breakfast order. (Seriously, this man eats what sounds like a slowed down Ghostface Killah verse.) Not longer after a whirlwind first date, Alma moves in to become his live-in muse. In a different film, the blossoming courtship between Reynolds and Alma would be an exponentially saccharine adventure, not unlike the sweet natured story of “Punch Drunk Love.” In that film, Anderson dug deep inside the anxiety and neurosis of difficult social interactions to find a moving, aspirational reflection of love at first sight, a practically superhuman force of nature capable of cutting through any seemingly insurmountable hardship.
But here, influenced heavily by the haunting suspense of Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” an older Anderson dramatizes the other side of love. It’s a haunting, darkly comic romance between an artificially confident tyrant and the only woman bold enough to prick a hole into the bloviated farce surrounding his sheltered existence. Initially, Alma’s presence in Reynolds’ life is positive so far as she inspires his work and tickles his fancy. In her voice-over narration, she remarks how adept she was at standing still while he made alterations to the fabric he draped her in. She brags about how no one could stand as long as she could. Her aptitude for modeling his work can’t change that she’s not a mannequin in his workshop, but a living, breathing human. One whose mere existence flouts in the face of the Woodcock house order.
She becomes an interloper in his otherwise idyllic lifestyle. Most romantic comedies feature a scene where a manchild bachelor has to adapt to cohabitation, but Anderson captures that transition with a horror director’s eye for chilling detail. Greenwood’s score convulses and contorts, its beauty stuttered by dread and discomfort. The camera stays still longer, trapping every awkward silence or sharp debate in unflinching totality. The sound design, in particular, is incredible, with something as simple as the sound Alma makes buttering her toast sounding like a Tex Avery cartoon piano crashing from the sky.
Because the film is stylistically on Reynolds’ side here, his initial monstrousness seems almost understandable. Anderson realizes the sum total of this man’s sartorial largesse so fully that anyone getting in the way of his process seems irrational. At one point, Reynolds implies that Alma’s basic expectation of developing a functioning adult relationship with her lover is childish.
But it’s Reynolds who is the immature one. Like most talented men, he sees his artistic gift as a perfectly normal excuse to disabuse himself of any responsibility outlined in a normal person’s social contract. It’s this element of the film that feels the most timely, as the media is so populated by stories of privileged men living in metaphorical fortresses built by the immense weight of their perceived genius.
Perhaps that is why when Alma turns the tables on him in the second act, it’s difficult to question or criticize her methods. For a public figure so towering in his influence and self deception, it’s understandable that extreme measures may be required to rejigger their sense of fealty. The darkly comic give and take in Alma and Reynolds’ romance resonates beyond the more immediate concerns for whether or not she goes too far in the pursuit of domestic equilibrium. Where Adam Sandler’s Barry Egan in “Punch Drunk Love” was an awkward schlub whose connection with Emily Watson’s Lena Leonard gave him strength, Reynolds is a man so deluded by his own projected sense of self that he needs the dressing down he receives from Alma.
The curious, unexpected way the film arrives at that powerful conclusion is a testament both to the brilliant performances at its core, from Day-Lewis in his final bow and Krieps in a breakout role, and to Anderson’s continued growth as one of our greatest filmmakers.
“Phantom Thread,” directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is now playing at The Charles Theatre.