In Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, a hush attends the illustrious British women’s-clothing designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he wields a tape measure with delicate precision, runs his long fingers over the fabric, and gazes intently on his handiwork — the silence broken only by pencil scratching or the creak of a floorboard. Assistants and clients know not to interrupt. The time is the early ’50s, and Reynolds Woodcock is an artist breathing the higher air.
Phantom Thread could have been a howl. Just the name “Reynolds Woodcock” is, as the French would say, de trop — the pinnacle of twit. Jonny Greenwood’s delirious strings-and-piano score carries on in a romantic-transcendentalist realm of its own. It would all be very pretentious — except it’s not pretension if you live and breathe it, as I think Anderson lives and breathes the idea that an artist like Woodcock must orchestrate every aspect of existence to make a sacred space for creation. The trouble comes when you also believe in true love. How can a man like Woodcock cede even a small amount of control?
He can’t, at first. The Woodcock we meet sits at the breakfast table with his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), along with a lover who begs for his attention and is curtly frozen out. She’s already history. Cyril, meanwhile, is attuned to his movements. She follows his lead, completes his thoughts, guides him only in the subtlest ways for fear of throwing him off his precious rhythm. Woodcock allows only two people into his space: Cyril, who takes care of the day-to-day business of living, and his mother, who is dead but ever present.
Woodcock’s delicate balance could perhaps be maintained if he were an ascetic, but Anderson has also given him a reverence for the female form and a gift for seduction. In a restaurant near his country house, he picks up a charmingly clumsy waitress named Alma (the Luxembourg-born Vicky Krieps), who has the body type he likes (tall, small-breasted, a hint of a belly) and a tantalizing way of holding his eyes. (“If you want to have a staring contest with me, you will lose,” she tells him.) On their first date he takes her measurements. Soon after, she has practically moved in. Like his other lovers, Alma is not happy as a wallflower: She wants to feel recognized and needed. Unlike his other lovers, she has a touch of the psychopath.
Phantom Thread adopts a sinister, Hitchcockian tone before resolving itself into a folie à deux that is too fou for words — preposterous, in fact, although this is the director who once opened his characters’ hearts by pelting them with frogs. Said resolution makes psychological sense but needed a few more beats to work itself into our bloodstream. Much has been made of Anderson’s attraction to stories of fathers, generally terrible ones. But in Phantom Thread — as in Punch-Drunk Love — we can discern the longing of a little boy for a mommy-lover. Does Woodcock’s clinging to order signal a desire to surrender, even to the brink of death? I doubt Anderson imagines a better design for living.
Manville is, like her character, so in sync with Day-Lewis that she borders on self-effacing — until you see how keenly Cyril monitors her brother’s every breath. Krieps is bewitchingly lucent, her face just masklike enough to make our sudden awareness of all her dark thoughts a shock. But the draw, of course, is Day-Lewis, who’s no stranger to the notion of creating a sacred space in which to work. We’re not so much watching Woodcock the rarefied designer as Day-Lewis the rarefied actor, his immersion so uncanny that he can illuminate a soul at once titanic and stunted. Day-Lewis has announced that this will be his last role, that he’s retiring from acting, and it’s easy to imagine him losing himself in carpentry or some other craft requiring less emotional risk. How nice that will be for him. How tragic for the rest of the world.