One of the most exquisite moments in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread,” a film composed entirely from exquisite moments, features a delicious riff on boy-meets-girl. The boy is having breakfast at a country inn; the girl is waiting on him. She trips, charmingly, on her way over to his table, then jots down his order — a feast of Welsh rarebit, scones and sausages — while returning his warm smile with a nervous, playful one of her own.
“Will you remember?” he asks, confiscating her notes. She will indeed.
Much of the pleasure of this strange and spellbinding movie, set in England during the 1950s, lies in how lovingly Anderson stitches together those eccentric throwaway details. Even in this sweet first encounter between Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a highly regarded London fashion designer, and Alma (Vicky Krieps), a young waitress of unknown background, we see the beginnings of a dynamic that will soon darken and intensify: her clumsiness, his appetite, her eagerness to serve, his flirtation issued in the form of a challenge.
‘Phantom Thread’ emerges as a dry comic allegory about self-absorbed male artists and the female muses who patiently love and nurture them.
Alma passes the first test, and the next one as well. After having dinner with Reynolds that evening, she goes home with him and disrobes. But what follows isn’t any ordinary consummation. Instead, he studies her figure and takes her measurements, rattling them off to his sister and business partner, Cyril (Lesley Manville), who, as she is wont to do, has appeared at his side like clockwork. (“You’re perfect,” he says, noting her flat chest. Cyril agrees, whispering, “He likes a little belly.”)
It’s a lot to take in, and Krieps gives a performance so emotionally responsive and minutely detailed that we can see Alma arriving at one crushing realization — she’s the latest model of many — before settling just as quickly into steely determination. Reynolds may be fitting her for a specific role, but he, too, will soon know how it feels to be whittled down to size.
So begins the tender and tempestuous love story of “Phantom Thread,” which is at once a darkly romantic comedy of manners and a transporting invitation to a bygone world. It’s also an unsurprisingly bravura showcase for Day-Lewis, who, in what will reportedly be his final screen performance, has left us with something rich, indelible and at times marvelously loathsome — a portrait of the artist as a fey, prickly, hyper-demanding middle-aged man.
Perhaps most of all, the movie is a reminder that there are few contemporary American filmmakers quite like Anderson, who, after the dazzling Altmanesque panoramas of “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia,” has followed his instincts in ever more feverish and idiosyncratic directions.
His recent pictures, including the 1950s psychodrama “The Master” and the ’70s noir “Inherent Vice,” feel less like stylized period pieces than weird, indelible relics of their respective eras — impeccably crafted, rich in mystery and deeply attuned to their characters’ turbulent inner states. If Anderson’s canvases have become more brooding and self-contained since “There Will Be Blood,” his masterful 2007 collaboration with Day-Lewis, they have also opened windows onto vast and cavernous psychic landscapes.
“Phantom Thread” is at once a lush, loving homage to vintage romantic melodramas, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” foremost among them, and a characteristically bold departure — not merely because it’s Anderson’s first production set outside the U.S.
Superbly shot by the director himself on 35-millimeter film, the movie pulls you in immediately. Truth be told, the cascading piano scales of Jonny Greenwood’s magnificent score could pull you into a dentist’s chair.
But what holds you throughout isn’t just the picture’s astounding craftsmanship but also its unsettling, exploratory vibe — the sense it conveys that you’ve seen something like it before, even as you assuredly haven’t.
To some extent, Alma makes that confusion manifest. Before long she has become Reynolds’ lover and assistant, and taken up residence in the Woodcocks’ London townhouse. She can seem lost in this world of tight corridors and staircases winding their way to infinity, where foreign princesses and local dowagers come for their fittings. But whether Alma is showing off Reynolds’ creations on the runway or standing silently at attention, she’s always quick to regain her footing.
On some level Alma understands Reynolds better than he understands himself; her fierce protectiveness of the House of Woodcock’s reputation occasions the story’s most ardent romantic gesture. But it’s when she decides to love Reynolds in ways that don’t conform to the house style that she finds herself dangerously at sea. Having once stood out enough from the crowd to catch his attention, she’s now expected to integrate herself, invisibly, into his routine.
It’s only fitting that Day-Lewis, known for his own exacting Method intensity, should play a man so consumed by artistic commitment. The rewards of the actor’s process are plain to see in the suavity of his bearing, the devilish charisma, the silver, slicked-back hair that at times gives him the appearance of a debonair mad scientist. But Day-Lewis also lays bare the peevishness behind the smile — the arrogance, the contempt and, most of all, the childlike fragility that both aggravates Alma and keeps her coming back for more.
The fruits of Reynolds’ labors are even more wondrous to behold, in part because costume designer Mark Bridges never seems to be trying to wow us. With a few delicate exceptions, like a svelte, lacy red dress cleverly inspired by Alma’s waitress uniform, much of the Woodcock couture looks heavy and stiffly layered, suggesting a buttoned-up idea of society glamour. The gowns are stunning all the same, ravishments of lavender, green and gold, and almost architectural in their construction; it’s no accident that the assembly process, requiring numerous technicians working silently in white lab coats, brings surgery to mind.
You can see why Cyril has devoted her life to safeguarding this magnificent enterprise, ensuring that nothing and no one, least of all the girl of the month, shatters her brother’s concentration. Cyril is as tightly coiffed and venomously poised as Judith Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers in “Rebecca,” an association that only an actress as formidable as Manville could have borne without collapsing under it. It’s a triumphant performance, a near-silent symphony of alternately withering and sympathetic glances cast knowingly in Alma’s direction.
But if Alma seems at first the most wobbly and expendable leg of this co-dependent triangle, she also has a gift for confounding the Woodcocks’ expectations at every turn. Not unlike Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!,” “Phantom Thread” emerges as a dry comic allegory about self-absorbed male artists and the female muses who patiently love and nurture them. Anderson’s film may be less deranged, but if anything it surpasses Aronofsky’s in eviscerating the weakness of a man who deems his art more worthy of his time than the woman he shunts to the side.
This is hardly the first time Anderson has slyly subverted the power dynamic of a marriage, as anyone who remembers Amy Adams’ glittering eyes in “The Master,” silently asserting control over her cult-leader husband, can attest. Nor is it the first time that he has drawn us into relationships that look doomed or destructive from the outset, only to express a surprisingly heartfelt optimism about their survival.
But what finally gives “Phantom Thread” its subversive kick isn’t just its provocative theorizing about the pursuit of genius, the desire for domestic fulfillment and the sacrifices required to balance the two. It’s that Alma, in undertaking her strange, singular mission, is perversely elevated to the standing of an artist in her own right. She becomes this movie’s most sublime creation and the living embodiment of its spirit — triumphant, audacious and impossible to forget.
Rating: R, for language
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Playing: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood; the Landmark, West Los Angeles