Nestled within his Fitzrovia manor, Reynolds Woodcock holds court with nobles and heiresses as a reigning luminary of fashion. His every movement and gesture sighs with couched dignity–when he lifts his knuckles to his face in silent contemplation of a stitch or seam he becomes less man than marble statue; his every word sashays to the rhythm of some unknowable meter. His schedule is as rigid and structured as the patterns in the lace he uses to adorn royal wedding dresses. Awaken, bathe, dress, brush, breakfast, silence. Any variation or intrusion, any unnecessary sound or confrontation ruins his mood and spoils his day. His standards are exacting and precise, his demands selfish and extravagant. It never occurs to him he might be a monster. Thrust upon him at too early an age, Woodcock has become accustomed to his genius, assuming his life is owed the comfort of other people’s obedience. Though an aging bachelor, he is nonetheless a little boy. And though he might not know it, just like a little boy he wants a mother. To his horror, he finds one.
Paul Thomas Anderson’sPhantom Thread is a mesmeric glimpse into the world of high fashion and the cruelties exacted by selfish, self-centered love. Loosely based on the life of Spanish Basque fashion designer Cristóbal Balenciaga, the film is a sumptous romance as beautiful as rose petals yet as jagged as their stems. Though sexually charged, the film never capitulates to visual titillation, instead transcending sexual desire to examine psychosexual needs, their roots, and the poor wretches they cripple.
At the core of Woodcock’s (Daniel Day-Lewis in his last onscreen performance) longings is the need to possess, stemming no doubt from the early loss of his mother for whom he designed a wedding dress when he was just 16. He keeps a photo of her in the dress like a talisman, and in moments of delirium she appears to him as she was all those many years ago, adorned in his finery, adorned in him. Decades later he still lives alone with only his imperious sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) for constant company. Though he might resent admitting it, he’s so emotionally stunted that without Cyril’s work as confidant, taskmaster, and caretaker his life would fall apart. He’s so dependant that he suffers her rare rebukes and threats in embarrassed silence–indeed, she’s the only one he allows the privilege of such effrontery. Woodcock wields his need to possess like a saber, skewering a succession of young women he idolizes as muses, reshapes, uses up, and disposes. At least until he meets Alma (Vicky Krieps).
In a film of enigmas, none are as mysterious as young Alma. Woodcock discovers her working as a waitress in a restaurant while convalescing in the English countryside following an emotional fit. Captivated, he invites her to dinner on the spot. Knowing nothing about him, she quickly agrees. From there, Woodcock woos her through drives in his expensive car and trips to expensive restaurants where he wipes off her lipstick to see the real “her.” When they return to his cabin, they consumate their relationship, not through sex, but through clothing: Woodcock strips her down to her underwear and takes her measurements. With Cyril’s help, of course.
Alma becomes a seamstress and model in Woodcock’s atelier, humoring his tempermental whims. She scarely seems to notice the luxuries around her–she has eyes only for Woodcock and his art. When an obnoxious woman passes out drunk during her wedding wearing one of his gowns, she convinces Woodcock to take the dress back, literally stripping it from her as she sleeps. And yet, for all her devotion, Alma demonstrates a desperate need to twist, aggravate, and prod Woodcock. She bothers him during his sacrosanct breakfast rituals, teases him in front of the other seamstresses, and in a moment of shocking audacity, disrupts his schedule by ordering the servants (and Cyril) away from the house so she can cook him dinner. Why does she do this? Is she testing the limits of his devotion? Is she a sadist? A combination of both? It comes to a head in a shocking scene where she poisons him with wild mushrooms so she can nurse him back to health like a nanny and reclaim his wandering affections. Even more shocking: her ploy works. He proposes to her the moment he recovers and their romance continues. For a time.
To watch Phantom Thread is to watch an unstoppable force (Alma) meet an immovable object (Woodcock). Through their relationship Anderson strips bare the myth of the tortured male artist, revealing the spoiled child beneath the facade of masculine brilliance. To this end, Lewis gives a quietly volcanic performance. In his infamous manner, Lewis took it upon himself to train as a designer and tailor for a year before filming began, even helping to make costumes for the New York City Ballet. Though he does little sketching, designing, or sewing in the film, he embodies the preoccupied air of a creator possessed by their work and the demands of their own reputation. Krieps meets him with equally subdued ferocity, pulling off a character we can’t quite figure out until it’s too late.
In the ten years since his last collaboration with Lewis in the explosive There Will Be Blood, Anderson has moved away from the bouyant kineticism of Boogie Nights and Magnolia towards a more subdued yet no less stylized stoicism. His faux-Scientology film The Master felt more like a succession of meticulously crafted paintings peering into the shattered psyche of a neurotic World War Two veteran while his deliberately unfocused and scatterbrained neo-noir Inherent Vice (2014) was more interested in evoking the strung-out hangover of post-Altamont stoner culture than in telling any kind of story. Watching them back-to-back, I was struck by how restrained they both were: I can only remember one extravagant camera movement in either. Phantom Thread continues this trend with an emphasis on pure visual opulence. There’s no fussy camera work or editing; one shot flows to the next with the gentleness of a breeze. Anderson reportedly worked as his own cinematographer, and the fidelity of his images are astonishing. Each shot feels as delicately tailored as one of Woodcock’s dresses. If the majority of his films are meditations on wounded masculinity, then Phantom Thread is his baroque opus. And it would be no less a fitting conclusion to his career as it is for Lewis himself.