Reynolds Woodcock, the 1950s fashion designer at the heart of Phantom Thread, lives a highly choreographed life, so it makes sense that writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson would open the movie with one of his most elegantly choreographed sequences.
Inside the London mansion that serves as Woodcock’s home, design studio, and dress-making facility, the camera floats up stairwells and down staircases, seemingly doing a dance with Jonny Greenwood’s robust piano score. Models and seamstresses bustle about at the start of the day, performing their own pirouettes for the camera, while Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) goes through his morning grooming routine with precision and panache. Before he’s even uttered a word, Woodcock’s essential nature has been established by the filmmaking.
Woodcock’s demeanor, if not his nature, lies in stark contrast with that of Day-Lewis’ last Anderson character: Daniel Plainview, the ruthless oilman of There Will Be Blood. If Plainview was a rumbling brawler willing to literally get his hands dirty, Woodcock delicately delivers orders in a quiet, lilting voice, most of which are then carried out by others. (The real dirty work is handled by his business manager and sister, icily played by Lesley Manville.) He may be as ambitious and determined as Plainview, but he has far better manners in expressing it.
Woodcock is also a man so tightly wound that he’s about to burst, something we sense when he gets behind the wheel of his luxury car and the landscape flies by in a fast-motion blur. Hurtling toward his country retreat, Woodcock encounters Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress at a roadside inn. She seems ripe for the cycle of womanizing that usually soothes his soul, and so after some flirtation leads to a dinner date that evening, he invites her to his country house, where he abruptly demands her measurements. Alma, you see, is to be his new muse—the primary model for his latest designs—a prospect she warily accepts.
Alma often seems to be getting the better of Reynolds, even when she’s following his explicit orders.
The movie makes it easy to understand the appeal that this might have for her. The sequences of designing and modeling are nothing less than ravishing, in part because of Anderson’s swooning camera, but also because of the exquisite costumes on display. (Mark Bridges is the costume designer.) When Alma models a rose gown featuring centuries-old lace, she is transformed. Not necessarily “better,” but somehow more precisely herself. Phantom Thread captures the thrill of what it would be like to have an extravagant piece of clothing made for you, exactly you.
Of course there’s a power dynamic at play here that isn’t quite as enchanting. Reynolds exercises control over Alma the moment he gives her his lunch order and then takes her notepad away, challenging her to remember it. That night at dinner, he wipes off her lipstick without even asking. Yet Alma proves to be trickier than his previous muses, a development that crucially distinguishes Phantom Thread from Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, a more problematic 2017 film about artists as despotic god figures. Krieps, in what should be a star-making performance, employs a rotating arsenal of coquettish smiles, hard stares, and innocent eye-batting, sometimes flitting among them with a dizzying dexterity. The result is that Alma often seems to be getting the better of Reynolds, even when she’s following his explicit orders. “Perhaps I’m looking for trouble,” she teases, suggesting that the movie might be about a muse who uses.
In this there is a hint of Hitchcock, who may be Anderson’s inspiration this time around, as his films generally follow in the footsteps of one of cinema’s masters. There are other spooky details in Phantom Thread to suggest this, from its enigmatic title to Woodcock’s references to his dead mother, who makes a brief, chilling appearance. What’s more, the movie concludes on a note of unsettling masochism that may give you vertigo. By the time Phantom Thread reached this ending and Alma and Reynolds reached a perverse understanding, I felt as if I had watched one of Hitchcock’s later, more psychologically explicit films—albeit one layered with an aching vulnerability that the Master of Suspense wouldn’t have dared.