In the opening sequence of Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson’s camera takes us through the house of Reynolds Woodcock, a celebrated dressmaker in 1950s London. We watch as a parade of seamstresses ascend a spiral staircase, and here’s the thing that really gets me: Any other filmmaker would have shot the staircase from above as the women make their way down. It’s a beautiful and obvious vantage point—like black and white photos of Detroit ruins or a sunset. But Anderson doesn’t shoot the staircase from top to bottom. He shoots from the bottom looking up, and it’s precise, invisible finishes like this that make Phantom Thread more than a movie. Rather, it’s an emotional experience that demands to be watched in rapt attention, with all of our cinematic cylinders firing at once.
Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Reynolds, who’s built an impressive career creating dresses for princesses and other rich, influential women. It’s a pleasure to see the strange world of 1950s couture up close, but the fashion’s not the point, exactly. He could have been a sculptor, pianist or brilliant mathematician, so long as we recognize that the work and the artist are to be taken deathly serious.
Reynolds runs his house with shrewd efficiency, alongside his sister and business partner Cyril (Lesley Manville), whom Reynolds refers to repeatedly as “my old so and so.” Over the years, their union has become something more perfect than a marriage. Cyril tends to Reynolds’ needs expertly, but she’s not his pawn either; she’s something separate and extraordinary unto herself. Their relationship isn’t incestuous, but there’s nothing normal about a grown man taking breakfast every morning alongside his sister, either.
Reynolds starts the film with one mistress, but he’s grown tired of her and he’ll be needing a replacement soon. This gives space for Alma (Vicky Krieps), whom he finds as a clumsy-but-gorgeous waitress in the country and quickly transforms into a model, companion and living statue for his creations. It’s obvious and true to point out the brilliance of Day-Lewis in a role like this. The real revelation here is Krieps, an actor from Luxembourg who seems to have come out of nowhere, and yet manages to own every moment she’s on screen.
“It’s comforting to think the dead are watching over the living,” Reynolds says. “I don’t find that spooky at all.” He’s referring here to the ghost of his mother, a woman he idolizes and fears, and whose presence hangs over the film like a fine garment. Watch Alma’s face closely as she delivers the line to Reynolds about his mother: “You must have loved her very much.” It might seem like an innocent comment, but in fact, there’s serious fire and determination behind those eyes. No woman is psyched to hear about the idealized woman she will be consistently compared to and measured against.
As I’ve said, this isn’t a film about fashion. It’s about the impossibility of relationships, how we reconcile the human need for companionship with the insufferable idiosyncrasies of others. Alma’s challenging and impossible. She has opinions about the fabric, for one, and she scrapes her spoon across her teeth at breakfast. The sound design turns these annoying breakfast noises way up specifically to annoy us. It’s equal parts hilarious and dreadful, and Reynolds finds himself tortured by this push-pull pattern toward Alma. This is a tale as old as time. It’s the subject of Somerset Maugham’s aptly named novel, Of Human Bondage, it’s the implied tragedy hanging off the edges of every idiot romantic comedy, and it’s quite probably the central preoccupation of my life. Phantom Thread is one of 2017’s best films.
Phantom Thread opens at the Roxy Fri., Jan. 19.