It’s almost impossible to describe Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread without using words like “sublime” and “ravishing” and “rapturous.”
“I’m still swooning,” I texted a friend the day after I saw it.
“OMG, major swoooon!” she wrote back.
So what gives? Why does this film leave us all in a state of aesthetic ecstasy? Well, it’s partly because the film is, among other things, about beauty—the idea that beauty itself is a noble pursuit, worth utter dedication, and maybe even worth ruining your life for. And partly because the film is literally gorgeous—the clothing, the actors, the interiors, all painstakingly realized by the brilliant Anderson. Throw in Jonny Greenwood’s mesmerizing score, which combines romantic and lush piano music with a dash of Schubert and Debussy and a few hypnotically eerie chime bells—and, well, the film is a veritable banquet of cinematic delights.
Our hero is Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a famous fashion designer in 1950s London. Reynolds lives alone with his spinster sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) in a house where everything is just so. Indeed, Cyril sees to it—that the flowers are arranged, the blinds opened, the brass polished, and that the lineup of seamstresses who arrive for work every morning are perfectly demure and dressed antiseptically in white. Reynolds is obsessive about every detail of his life—when we first see him, he’s going through an elaborate personal grooming ritual that includes plucking stray hairs from his nose and ears—and he’s particularly (and hilariously) fussy about having a peaceful breakfast. He feels he needs perfect quietude—both inner and outer—to make his beautiful gowns.
Reynolds can be doting to his wealthy female customers and often to his sister, whom he affectionately calls, “My old so-and-so.” But he also can be monstrously cruel, especially to the many young women he romances and finds temporary inspiration in—until he gets bored and has Cyril tastefully get rid of them (they get an original House of Woodcock gown as a parting gift).
Then, one day, while Reynolds is staying at his pied-à-terre in the English countryside, he goes into a café for breakfast. The waitress (Vicky Krieps) is pretty, but in a simple, country way. She has a faint Eastern European accent. She sees him looking at her, crashes into a table, and a blush rises up her throat and face. Reynolds is charmed by her. He orders an enormous amount of food—scones with raspberry jam and Welsh rarebit and eggs and sausage and bacon—then asks if he can see what she has written. “Will you remember my order?” he says, tucking her notes into his jacket. It’s our first indication that he doesn’t just become smitten with people—he wants to possess them. But the waitress, whose name is Alma, has a few surprises of her own. When he asks her out, she’d already anticipated it. She hands him a note with her phone number that reads: “For the Hungry Boy.”
They go on a date—and then back to his country house. He makes her a dress and she describes, in a voiceover, how beautiful and perfect he makes her feel. But as she’s standing on the wooden box in his studio, vulnerable in just her undergarments, Cyril arrives. She literally sniffs Alma (“so you’re the one making the house smell so good”) and then sits in a chair as Reynolds barks out Alma’s measurements—not just waist and bust, but breast to nipple, shoulder to breast, thigh to knee, etc. It’s clearly a ritual that the siblings have recreated many times—and it’s both heady for Alma and slightly dehumanizing.
Reynolds takes Alma back to London and then to dinner, where she’s able to show off her new dress. It appears to be a romantic night on the town, until Cyril slides into the booth.
“I ordered you the steak tartar, my old so-and-so,” Reynolds says to her.
At first, it seems like Alma is no match for Reynolds and Cyril and the cloistered world they’ve created. But Phantom Thread, marvelously, plays with our expectations at every turn. We imagine that Alma is going to go the way of the last “muse”—and all the ones before her. But Alma is no pushover. In some ways, she’s as stubborn and strong-willed as the siblings—indeed, more so.
What’s more, in another surprise, Cyril doesn’t hate Alma. She sees her as an interloper, of course—and is certainly jealous of her—but she actually has some grim affection for the young woman, and doesn’t want to see her get hurt.
There’s another character who lives in the house—although not literally. That’s Reynolds’ beloved mother, who died when he was a young man. He still talks about her and thinks about her every day—clearly, there was an Oedipal nature to his devotion (he keeps a lock of her hair stitched into every one of his beautiful wool sports coats). It would seem that all the women in his life are some sort of stand-in for his mother.
The three actors are marvelous. Newcomer Krieps more than holds her own against her more seasoned co-stars, and it’s wonderful to watch her Alma learn to navigate this complex, intricate, twisted world. Manville can convey volumes with a single smile or slight gesture—her performance is a study in subtlety. And, of course, Day-Lewis is pure perfection. The actor claims that this is his last film and I don’t—or maybe just refuse to—believe him. But if it is, it’s an extraordinary send-off. His Reynolds is everything—charming and cruel, commanding and pitiful, glamorous and morose. You can’t take your eyes off him.
Phantom Thread is about a man who is obsessive in his pursuit of beauty and it’s directed by an auteur who is equally obsessive in his pursuit of the ideal cinematic language with which to tell his stories. He’s found it here. Despite its lush environs, Anderson’s film has a perfect economy: There’s not an extraneous gesture, image, or word of dialogue to be found. His film is a flawless marriage of form and content.
Phantom Thread open this Friday at the Charles Theatre.