Phantom Thread wears its period-piece genre convincingly, featuring a serious (and perhaps final) performance from actor Daniel Day-Lewis as a couturier to British aristocrats of 1950s London. But it’s a disguise: Underneath the surface, a Paul Thomas Anderson psychological drama eventually unravels, though its thrilling pulse may be closer to Hitchcock.
The story centers on Day-Lewis’ character, Reynolds Woodcock, who enjoys every success as a spirited, meticulous genius dressmaker—and how his life changes slowly but dramatically with the arrival of Alma (Vicky Krieps). After “discovering” her at the Victoria Hotel in Robin Hood’s Bay, Woodcock whisks Alma away to London to be his model, inspiration, and mistress. But rejection and heartbreak loom on the horizon, as the opening scene depicts the dismissal of his former muse, Joanna. She forecasts Alma’s expected future.
Rather than acquiesce to the draconian rules of the household of Woodcock and his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), Alma stands up for herself. She fights for her right to speak when Woodcock’s constant work demands silence, and for her right to have her own preferences. But their love affair soon turns into a nuanced power struggle. In her own right, she means to penetrate his cold exterior and enjoy his tenderness. But while the balance of control is at the heart of every marriage, the film never lets you forget the social imbalances at play.
Although it’s never said where she is from, Alma has an accent. She was a waitress before Woodcock met her. And oblique details, such as conversations about having sold visas to Jews post-World War II, set up the fact that Alma has been invited into a world where she does not belong. Judging this divide is Woodcock himself, who gets to decide who has the social standing to wear his dresses and who does not.
Anderson reprises his role as the breaker of illusions and romanticized dreams in his latest movie. In Boogie Nights, he tackled the lonely, graphic consequences of the adult-film industry; more recently, he looked at the isolation and violence behind the ambition of capitalism in There Will Be Blood. In Phantom Thread, the illusion is the perfection of fashion and wealth. Jonny Greenwood’s beautiful, tension-filled, and angst-heavy score, however, laces its tone with the necessary unease.
Woodcock is the most eloquent proponent and smooth-talking salesmen for the movie’s sense of illusion. Early on, as he pitches a wedding dress to a princess, he doesn’t just describe the dress; he describes what it represents, what kind of life she will live in it. It’s the same lifestyle that Alma and the audience both dream about. Magnificent townhomes and parties. Beautifully orchestrated scenes of Woodcock and his team of seamstresses creating dresses. Woodcock tells Alma that he finds her unique body perfect. But behind each ideal is the manipulation and control of the sewer, the dreamer, the lover.