HOW TO DESCRIBE Paul Thomas Anderson’s magnificently daft Phantom Thread, a movie as precise as it is delirious. To borrow from Stanley Cavell, it’s a comedy of courtship, marriage, and remarriage. Comedy, however, may be too clear-cut a designation for this story about the intimate life of a couple from first attraction to a precarious arrangement of power, for which no one would write a lifetime warranty. Beyond the dazzling performances of Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, and Lesley Manville; the swooping and/or oddly angled luminous 35-mm cinematography by Anderson himself; and the almost omnipresent orchestral score by Jonny Greenwood, which suggests Nelson Riddle on ecstasy, the movie’s uniqueness is its fluidly shifting tone, as if the ghosts of genres as diverse as gothic mysteries (Hitchcock’s Rebecca), screwball comedies (Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby), perverse, obsessional romances (Kubrick’s Lolita), and Angela Carter’s feminist inversions of classic fairy tales were dancing at the edge of the collective consciousness of everyone involved, including the viewer. Anderson’s script is pretty great too.
The setting is London in the early 1950s, enjoying a return to affluenceat least among the privileged classesafter the hardships of World War II. Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) is a very haute couturier for the rich and the royal. His long-dead mother is his inspiration, the source of his enraptured attention to the construction of muslins, the drape of luxurious fabrics, precise stitching and embroidery, and even the maddening compromise of fitting his creations to less than perfect, that is, human, bodies. Woodcock is an impeccable craftsman (Norman Hartnell might be a reference) but not an originator like Charles James or the Dior of the “New Look.” Nevertheless, reverence for his process is the primary demand placed on everyone in his orbit. His sister Cyril (Manville) sees to it that nothing interferes with his concentration and routine. She also manages the business of the House of Woodcock. “If breakfast isn’t right, it’s very hard for him to recover for the rest of the day,” she tells his latest discovery, Alma (Krieps), an unspoiled beauty with a slight foreign accent who captures his attention when she nearly trips while waiting tables at a restaurant near his country home. On their first date, he dresses her, rather than the reverse, creating a gown from scratch, while Cyril notes her measurements on a new page in a thick models-and-cliental book. (She also sniffs her face, like a cat mightodd even for an English eccentric, which, notably, she and her brother are.) Soon Alma is ensconced in Woodcock’s atelier and living quarters, although not often in his bed.
You might want to hold on to the naked rush of emotion that threatens Reynolds’s practiced reserve when he looks up from the table to ask his waitress, “Will you have dinner with me?” Day-Lewis has not played a character as seductive or as taken off guard by infatuation since his Newland Archer in Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (1993). His slightly strangulated vocal delivery is the same here as in that film, as if both characters feared what unknown realms words might open if they were not employed as a check against a pulse that quickens with desire, or, for that matter, fear or anger. Reynolds may be a serial seducer, but when he looks at Alma, he sees a future that, at the moment, he believes is different from anything he has experienced before. Not surprisingly, Alma is easily won, and then flummoxed when their mutual fantasy falls apart. But she is not willing to give up on the promise of their first meeting. Nor, thanks to Day-Lewis’s and Krieps’s performances, are we.
The struggle between the safety of the familial and the danger of exogamy is one of several narrative threads that make the movie more than the abundant pleasures it offers the eye and ear. The narrative opens with the model who precedes Alma being frozen out by the symbiotically attached siblings. Alma immediately faces the same entrenched bond. Not easily cowed, despite the casual contempt with which Reynolds and Cyril treat her every expression of personal taste or desire, she gradually learns that when Reynolds is exhausted or ill, he becomes vulnerable and tender. At these times he needs her more than Cyril. His sister wants him to act like a grown-up: “Barbara Rose pays for this house,” she reminds him, when he balks at attending the wedding of a particularly obnoxious client. (If there are parallels between independent filmmaking and haute couture, then Cyril is the equivalent of the producer.) And when the client keels over in a drunken stupor, Reynolds and Alma strip her of the dress he designed and, brandishing it, run through the streets like rebel children playing Capture the Flag.
But these moments of mutual pleasure are short-lived. Faced again with losing Reynolds, Alma resorts to a hilariously macabre twist on the old maxim “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” I’ll give away no more except to venture that Alma’s scheme is chancy, and Anderson’s decision to have her employ it not once but twice, and on top of that, to have Reynolds realize what’s she’s done and approve her risking his life for their love, is outlandishproof that these two fools for love are perfectly matched. Reynolds’s “Kiss me, my girl, before I’m sick,” could have been one of the great last lines in movie romance history, but Anderson resists that triumphant a resolution and, in the film’s only flaw, muddles the narrative with hasty double ending. To quote an incomparable curtain line, this one by Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond, “Nobody’s perfect.”