If there was a time when it was possible to recognize that a film you were watching was written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, I sure don’t remember it. My introduction to his work, two decades ago, was the one-of-a-kind “Boogie Nights,” which was followed, a couple of years later, by the endlessly inventive “Magnolia.” They’re two films that had little in common, style-wise. In between a series of music videos (Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, Radiohead), Anderson kept shooting off into diverse directions for his features. Could the same filmmaker really have done both “Punch-Drunk Love” and the radically different “The Master?” Sure, and now “Phantom Thread” (the title of which I’ve stopped trying to decipher) goes down yet another road.
It brings us in time and place to 1950s London, and in storyline inside the competitive world of fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), who is referred to in the opening moments, by a young woman speaking to someone off-camera, as “maybe the most demanding man.”
Well, there, as is shown over the next two hours, is an understatement, and that character trait is aimed as much at himself as it is to others. Reynolds Woodcock always dresses smartly, makes sure every hair is in place, is nothing short of fastidious and elegant in his every slow, determined movement. At home he’s usually stern and gloomy. But at work, with a tape measure around his neck, and plentiful supplies of fabrics and beautiful young models around him, he’s happy, smiling, inspired. Running the place with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), who handles the business end of the operation, he’s an artist, a superstar of design whose upper-class clients swoon over his talent.
He’s well-known and well-off, but there’s another perk to his occupation and status, one that adds up to being a weakness. He constantly has an eye out for the ladies, and though the script doesn’t give a lot of details, he seems to be transfixed, albeit only till he tires of them, by those models. Flings, but no commitment, except for being a confirmed bachelor, appear to be what make him tick.
But a lunch break at a restaurant, where his eyes, along with his smile, are directed at a pretty young waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps) soon changes everything. In quick succession, he asks her to dinner, she falls under his spell — as so many likely have — he brings her to his country home, has her stand on a box, breaks out the tape measure, and almost feverishly begins trying different shapes and fabrics and colors on her. Alma, a woman who has long suffered from low self-esteem, is swept up in all of this, and has no clue that in her, he believes he has found his muse.
For a film that physically moves so slowly, taking its time to tell a story while never getting around to giving much importance to a standard plot, a lot of things happen. Anderson also shot the film, and the refined look he gives it is impeccably complemented by the quiet but passionate score by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood (his fourth time for Anderson), and by the many long stretches of silence.
This works for the most part as a character study of Reynolds and Alma, who need each other and feed off of each other, but aren’t sure if they can stand each other. It’s also, to a lesser degree, a study of Cyril, who proves to be a force of nature not to be messed with, and often has to act as a referee when the bickering begins. It’s about the theory of opposites attracting, but being forced to walk on eggshells for fear of disrupting a fragile balance. Somehow, both the relationship and the film work.
— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
With Daniel-Day Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville