Lamentations on the disappearance of refined, intelligently made romance films have not gone unheard by Paul Thomas Anderson. Only the raconteur director would just like to add a pinch of spice in the form of psychodrama. Underneath the trappings of his work — the spectacularly-costumed period piece Phantom Thread — beats the blackened heart of a satirical masterpiece; one made with the same painstaking precision that Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) puts into each dress he makes. Don’t misunderstand Reynolds’ careful hand, though, as he is keenly aware of the poking and prodding that he inflicts on others. Woodcock wields his wit like a butcher with a blade. And he’s developed a taste for blood.
Day-Lewis has an affinity for playing monsters, and Woodcock, despite his polished appearance and esteemed reputation, is no less of a monster than Daniel Plainview (There Will Be Blood) or Bill the Butcher (Gangs of New York). There is a hint of violence that flickers beneath his romantic overtures to Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress, who he shuffles off to his vacation home to serve as his muse. What begins as quiet breakfasts, long strolls on the beach and lavish dinners quickly transcends into a bombardment of insults. The residence, for all of its hearth, contains diseased roots. And a majority of this suffering lies in the man of many contradictions. Reynolds will, on a whim, order a breakfast made up of several courses yet stare disdainfully at a lovely plated pastry. Such is the cycle for Reynolds and his muses; enchantment, isolation, abuse and disownment.
Yet, Alma is more than capable of holding her own against the cult of personality that lies in the House of Woodcock. “All your rules, and your clothes, and all this money, and everything is a game.” In a battle of wills, Alma is better suited to play than her “fussy” opponent. Where many blank canvases before her went mad, Alma defiantly changes the power dynamic between Reynolds and his muse. Krieps is not as well-known as her scene partners, but that will change as soon as the film hits wide release. Ingenues are a dime-a-dozen, yet Krieps glides away from a cliche to inform her own portrayal rich with detail and humor.
Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd. Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday. With these characters, Anderson has toyed with the role of dominants and submissives by focusing on conflicts between rigid men. Phantom Thread upends that dynamic by having Reynolds and Alma occupy both roles simultaneously, just at different times. The devotion Reynolds gives his work does not allow for adjustments to his routine. Alma, undeterred by his monk-like existence, seeks to shape him into a partner just as Reynolds does her. Phantom Thread contains maybe the most toxic relationship committed to film, but it does so with an empathy that one would not think possible. In his previous films, Anderson’s characters have leaned toward archetypes that represent a metaphor. Here, interior lives are more important than the external factors that push them.
Not content in playing another duo off each other, Anderson adds an interloper in the form of Cyril (Lesley Manville). Cyril’s simplistic, gray wardrobe contrasts sharply with the bespoke suits and dresses that Reynolds and Alma wear, but she doesn’t occupy a lesser space, she blends in only to preserve quiet. Cyril also operates as the fist inside one of Reynolds’ exquisitely designed velvet gloves, delivering harsh truths and carrying messages that Reynolds is too weak to bear. Co-dependence isn’t just limited to romantic love. So, it’s no surprise that Alma makes her defining move only with Cyril out of the house. Reynolds asks — in a riotous outburst at dinner that rivals Dodd’s vulgar lambasting of a journalist in The Master — if Alma has been sent to ruin his entire life, with her sole purpose being an agent of chaos that interrupts his hermetic solitude. Deep inside Woodcock knows that they truly deserve each other, even if they both bristle at the slightest attempt at provocation. “In his work,” Alma narrates, “I become perfect.” Reynolds needs someone who views his craft as instrumentally as he does. And the work is simply astounding. Mark Bridges, Anderson’s regular costume designer dating back to Hard Eight, turns in his best work, clothing not only the cast but creating the designs that Reynolds fashions for his many customers.
“There is an air of quiet death in this house.” There is also a lingering tension that drives the film, put in motion by the masterful performances of Day-Lewis, Krieps and Manville, along with the score. Jonny Greenwood jumps from elegant piano themes to disharmonic chords in a flash, mirroring the strained tensions between Alma and Reynolds. If indeed this is Day-Lewis’ swan song, Phantom Thread is the crowning achievement of a monumental career. More impressive is that he doesn’t overshadow the rest of the film — his performance is rather an aid to a masterwork. There Will Be Blood lagged when the actor’s bellowing tyrant wasn’t onscreen, but Phantom Thread is brilliant from start to finish. Audiences are unlikely to find a better film, not only in theaters, but this decade.
Follow Colin Biggs on Twitter @wordsbycbiggs.