Phantom Thread is about a lot of things: the eccentricities of genius, how to live with a genius, and how relationships can get very twisted. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s original script, we get a glimpse of darkness that I’m not sure many people can stomach. For me, a very good movie had a very disturbing ending that went to a place I wasn’t ready to go.
The story concerns Reynols Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), one of the top dress designers in the world. He works out of his home, with a bevy of seamstresses and his sister (Lesley Manville) basically running the business. He also has a series of muse/concubines, who provide him inspiration, companionship, and a little sex. The film opens with him finally tiring of one of these women, who demands his attention during breakfast (a very important meal for Woodcock–if his breakfast routine is ruined it can foul his whole day).
That girl is sent packing by Manville, who knows her brother’s quirks and works around them, without kowtowing to him (at one point she tells him he doesn’t want to get into a fight with her, because he will lose). But that very evening Woodcock goes into the country and finds his next muse as a waitress in a country inn.
Played by Vicki Krieps, she falls for him, even if he is brutally up front with her while using her as a model. “You have no breasts,” he tells her. But she is determined to finally be the one to capture him (he has never been married). I won’t go too deeply into the plot, but pay attention when Krieps and the cook are out gathering mushrooms.
Phantom Thread, despite its delicious decor, costumes, and English manners, reminds me of the great battling couples dramas, such as Strindberg’s Dance of Death, Anouilh’s Waltz of the Toreadors, James Goldman’s Lion in Winter, or Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It even brought to mind Gone Girl, because all of these plays/movies involve basically unlikeable people who deserve each other.
Day-Lewis, in supposedly his last film, is perfect as Woodcock. Anderson could have made him any kind of artist, from chef to writer to painter, as the greatest of these usually have tics and routines that can’t be disrupted. As soon as Krieps is entered into the house, she starts to bother him with noises she makes at breakfast. As for her, she is a schemer, realizing that Woodcock is a mama’s boy (he carries a lock of his late mother’s hair, sewn into his coat). The actress, who has very little on her resume, is playing the protagonist of the piece, as she is the one driving the action. The conflict of the film is whether she can change Woodcock enough to snare him permanently.
Phantom Thread is not exactly quickly paced, but it is frequently funny. Woodcock, a gentleman to the core, unleashes some pretty foul language when provoked, no more than in a scene in which Krieps tries to cook a special dinner for him but prepares the asparagus the wrong way, much to Woodcock’s distress.
I should give a shout out to Mark Bridges, the costume designer, who has to do an excellent job in a film about haute couture, and he does. The film looks great overall, and is an anglophile’s dream.
I suspect Bridges will get an Oscar nomination, as will Day-Lewis, but the story just doesn’t add up for me. It’s as if Anderson wanted to make a film about this subject but didn’t know how to end it. Still worthwhile seeing, though, if only for Day-Lewis’ perfectly mannered performance.