Movie Review: Phantom Thread
In what might be his final movie, Daniel Day-Lewis fully inhabits another of his difficult characters, this time a fashion designer who demands praise and silence.
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville, Vicky Krieps
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Running time: 130 minutes
By Jay Stone
The gods of movie coincidence, who lurk in the corners of every cinema, sent me the other day to watch Top Hat, the 1935 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie in which her gowns — including a famous floor-length dress covered in feathers that were shed all over the film’s polished dance floor — clung to her body and swirled with her twists, glorifying her shape and acting as a counterpoint to Fred’s rail-thin tuxedos. When Ginger swayed, her dresses became part of the choreography.
The next night, I saw Phantom Thread, in which Daniel Day-Lewis (in what he claims will be final film performance) plays a 1950s London dress designer named Reynolds Woodcock. His name tells his all: he looks like someone who would make aluminum wrap for a bird, and his creations, while carefully fashioned from exquisite and rare silks and lace, have a stiff formality in which the woman who inhabits them (“wears” seems far too tame a word for this couture) is something of a mannequin, a stand whose main duty is to keep the dresses from falling down. The clothes are beautiful, rich and lifeless.
This also tells you something about Woodcock, a self-absorbed eccentric who immerses himself in his work — he’s forever sketching pen-and-ink designs at the breakfast table while whatever companions who are present strain not to make too much noise buttering the toast — and asks for nothing but peace, quiet, praise, obedience and adoration.
Phantom Thread is a strange and beautifully mounted story about this kind of man, a 1950s male with an artistic bent, and about the limits of control and emotion that might occur when he falls into what might be something like love. Not since Henry Higgins fell for Eliza Doolittle has an imperious bachelor been so exasperating.
The result is a movie that is more fascinating than coherent, which is something of a trademark for writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson. You’re drawn to the rich melodrama of his stories — like There Will Be Blood or The Master — but never fully satisfied with the enigmas of their difficult heroes. Indeed, that may be the point, and if so, Reynolds Woodcock is an apt addition to the canon.
Despite the complexities of the power struggle at play, Phantom Thread tells a fairly simple story. Woodcock, having just rid himself of his previous lover, is on holiday at a seaside resort when he orders breakfast — an impressive catalogue of meats and breads listed with a puckish charm that never again emerges — from a thin, strangely engaging waitress named Alma (Luxembourg actress Vicky Krieps). Reynolds begins to court Alma and then brings her to his London townhouse where she becomes his model, companion and worshipper from afar. Alma seems to be another of the plaint women who will suit Woodcock’s fancy for a while until the day when he might decide that her intrusions — Anderson has a way of amplifying the soundtrack when Alma pours tea or scrapes a knife across her bread so that it sounds like a natural disaster — demand she be sent away.
But Alma is made of sterner stuff than we imagine, and Krieps gives a very sly performance — a quieter version of Reynolds’ breakfast order — that slowly reveals a steel spine beneath her open and easily expressed fondness for the dressmaker.
And that’s not all. She also has to negotiate Cyril (Lesley Manville), Reynolds’ formidable sister, who sits quietly on the sidelines (no buttered toast for her), observes the world butting up against his immovable stubbornness, and calmly runs his life. When she warns him not to start a fight with her because she will kill him, we are persuaded: in the same way that Woodcock imprisons women in his stiffly formal gowns, so Cyril guards the walls in which he has imprisoned himself, his time and his accessibility.
Phantom Thread passes with a stately pace that disguises the violence of its half-buried emotions (the score, by Jonny Greenwood, creates an elevated atmosphere that forms a baroque background for the complicated anger of the characters.) Anderson plunges us into a constricted world of obsession — exemplified by the tightly controlled team of seamstresses who march into Woodcock’s home every day like workers in an auto assembly line — and then lets Day-Lewis squeeze himself into the torments, real and imagined, of fashion solipsism. The real awakening comes in the turns by Manville, who commands every scene she is in, and Krieps, whose softly Eastern European accent and compelling half-beauty make her a heroine who is easy to underestimate.
There’s a lot to think about here, including the elusive title and the half-explored idea of a near-death experience as a way to get a guy to open up a bit about his feelings. Strange and seductive, Phantom Thread is — if indeed it is — a fitting exit for one of the greatest screen actors in history.
THE EX-PRESS, February 21, 2018
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