“You can sew almost anything into the canvas of a coat,” explains Daniel Day-Lewis’s mercurial artistic genius Reynolds Woodcock.
He tells this to the young woman he’s grooming to become his newest lover/model/muse, but it also works as one of the few “Did you get that?” moments in Paul Thomas Anderson’s sly script.
“Phantom Thread” is, on its surface, about the haute couture scene in mid-1950s Britain — and while that certainly photographs beautifully, this is a movie that quietly laces its odd, discordant story beneath its surface. Put bluntly, the audience needs to work to get beneath that coat.
Daniel Day-Lewis, the three-time Oscar-winning Irish-British half-Jewish actor, claims that the role of Reynolds Woodcock will be his last. It may not be as showy as, say, “My Left Foot,” “Last of the Mohicans,” “Gangs of New York,” “There Will Be Blood” or “Lincoln,” but, like everything in this subtle and strange film, it grows stronger the more you sit with it. I can imagine a serious thespian driving himself mad to get inside the mind of someone so tortured, so distant and with such a specific, curious accent. For Daniel Day-Lewis, I dare call it a perfect fit.
Woodcock is a great artist and his clientele are the women of British high society and continental princesses. They idolize him and he is polite back, but he thinks of them as merely a means to an end. They get his vision out into the world.
His sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) runs the business side of the House of Woodcock, and an essential part of that is maintaining Reynolds’s mental well-being. This includes dismissing his female companions when they get too intrusive, and helping initiate the new ones.
You might think this is leading to scenes of wicked, boundary-pushing prurience, but I can assure you that isn’t quite the case. (While director Paul Thomas Anderson is American, this is a very British film.) There are unexpected power dynamics that reveal themselves if you stick with the twists and turns — but, please, anything too lewd would just not be appropriate.
The new muse is Vicki Krieps’s Alma, a relatively unknown Luxembourgish actress whose not-quite-placable accent is never discussed. Reynolds picks her up “in the country,” at a hotel near the water. She is his waitress and serves him the most hilariously exaggerated English breakfast ever put to film. (I confess, I’m ready to try Welsh rarebit, now that I know what it is.)
Food, so often tasteful cinema’s replacement for sex, plays a big part in “Phantom Thread,” as Alma’s noisy toast-scraping, cereal chomping and breaks for tea soon irritate the mad genius Reynolds. The scene with the most tension in the entire picture involves upwardly-turned asparagus sitting in a pool of butter. I don’t have a degree in psychology, but this has to mean something, doesn’t it?
What is “Phantom Thread” about? Well, on the surface it seems like thin material. A dressmaker finds a new girlfriend. At first she likes him, then she realizes that he’s never going to take her seriously until she proves herself essential, if not to his work than at least to his psyche. This may not be considered by all to be a progressive statement. I do not wish to give away plot points, but some will argue that Alma’s ultimate actions prove that she has feminist agency, while others will call her another of Hollywood’s crazy bitches. You get to be the judge on that one.
However, the sexual politics, while interesting, are weaved in such a finely crafted way that I don’t think these characters are meant to be wholly representative of their gender. The romance between these two (with sister Cyril as an anchor) is the type of thing that can only be created by hand.