Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, and Daniel Day-Lewis’ final one is a sumptuous, tactile beauty – a quiet enigma that lingers in the mind.
Phantom Thread is set in 1950s London where the memories of the post-war austerity have faded into memory, in the quiet polished halls of the House of Woodcock, one of fashionable companies favourite dressmakers. Daniel Day-Lewis is Reynolds, the prickly and highly strung creator who, with his sister Cyril (the frankly brilliant Lesley Manville) oversee operations and the making of luscious expensive dresses. This ordered life, in which a underlying tension is never far away from the siblings’ interactions, is disrupted by the arrival of Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress whom immediately captures Reynolds’ attention and quickly becomes his muse.
But this isn’t another film about a tortured genius and his eventually unhappy muse. Well, it is, but it is also so much more. It’s a film that constantly treads a line between conflict and solution, between men and women, between perceptions of attitudes and reality. Reynolds’ behaviour, his need for quiet at breakfast, his borderline hostile treatment of Alma, is tolerated by his sister, no doubt used to tantrums and artistic sulking, but not some much by this newcomer who demands to be see as more that just a muse or a mannequin for dresses to be hung on. Alma holds her own, trying to find out just how she fits into this close-knit household and how exactly to exert her own power in this often tempestuous yet oddly loving relationship.
It’s also unexpectedly comic, from the yelling at a young doctor to “Fuck off” almost in unison, to Day-Lewis’ puffing of cheeks and a resigned look of annoyance when he realises that Alma’s noisy eating habits is something that will not disappear. Lesley Manville, in a complex role that manages to be both spiky and supportive, treating Alma at a distance until it becomes clear that this is not a relationship that will disappear overnight like so many others, is extraordinary, managing to be cutting with a single barbed comment or a twitch of the lips. Vicky Krieps too, is excellent at Alma, refusing to be cowed by Reynolds genius but also still wanting to keep a real relationship with him.
These ongoing tensions are amplified by Jonny Greenwood’s score, which never seems to settle into the easy trappings of a period film, but keeps the audience almost on edge in scenes as simple as the preparation of a meal. Definitely an Oscar nomination that is well deserved.
Anderson’s direction and cinematography is key to the film – intimate palates of yellow and blue contrasted with the harsh white marble of the public front of the household, medium close-ups of the front of the car speeding through the country – framing the couple inside the car while the trees and buildings flash hypnotically by. It is also a film that employs a fetishistic aesthetic, savouring every pull of fabric, every stitch, every scrape of a knife against china. The camera’s lingering gaze on the fabrics, the food, the labels stitched within a dress is reinforced by the mixing of the sound, which captures each swallow, each annoyed glance.
And, if it truly is his final film, what a film for Daniel Day-Lewis to go out on. He manages to be contrary and seductive, grouchy and flirty, an obsessive man who is tackling with his entire perception of the world after finally meeting a woman who is entirely capable of holding her own against him. It’s a complex, dark love that holds you until the very final moment. And if the final meal scene doesn’t make you appreciate his acting prowess, then frankly nothing will.
Phantom Thread is not the film you think it will be – it is so much more.