Set in 1950's London, Reynolds Woodcock is a renowned dressmaker whose fastidious life is disrupted by a young, strong-willed woman, Alma, who becomes his muse and lover.
Forget, for a moment, that Phantom Thread will reportedly be Daniel Day Lewis’s last acting role. That screen idol’s retirement announcement has served to elevate Paul Thomas Anderson’s ninth feature into a swan song, but the narrative of the fabled “final part” reduces the film into a showcase for its leading man—and Anderson’s twisted take on the fashion industry is anything but a simple character study.
Rewinding to the postwar and prefeminist days of 1950s London, Phantom Thread finds its focus in Day Lewis’s Reynolds Woodcock, an English designer par excellence who seems to be somewhere, in style and temperament, between Charles James (who Cecil Beaton once summed up by saying, “No one could cope with his temperament for long”) and Cristóbal Balenciaga, the rigorous ruler of a sumptuously luxurious fiefdom all his own. The world of corseted, cosseted luxury is not without its cruelties, and Anderson’s title itself is a nod to a Victorian affliction where seamstresses continued to mime the process of sewing long after they finished their work. The film, which Anderson, in an interview with the New York Times, likened to gothic romances like Rebecca, Vertigo, and Gaslight, is as much about female frustration as it is about the spark of creativity. “Vertigo is really about obsession and that fever that comes over you when romance comes your way,” Anderson says, and he modeled his film on “peculiar, complicated” love: The result is a fractured take on desire, codependency, and the connection between artist and muse. Phantom Thread isn’t the taut romance hinted at within its trailer. Going for something bleaker, and at times more interesting, it explores the impact of obsession, and of male power within a sphere dedicated to women.
Designers these days may flit in and out of their positions at corporate-backed houses, but in the postwar era the position was more foundational. The man was the house. The role of the master—whose singular vision could revolutionize the way women dressed—informs the character of Reynolds. (The thrice-Oscar-award-winning Day Lewis studied dressmaking for the role, and even made a couture dress as part of his preparation.) As the sole male presence within his business (and for large portions of the film) he is attended to by an army of women (the petites mains, who don white lab coats and toil away over his creations upstairs; his uptight codependent sister, Cyril, played with pursed-lip perfection by Lesley Manville, who runs the business side of the operation; his customers, boozy society dames and minor royalty who flock to his atelier for the chance to wear one of his creations) eager for his approval, and willing to sacrifice in order to get it. Women display their loyalty to him and the aesthetic he has created by wishing to transform their physical selves into some corner of his vision: young women approach him at dinner to say their goal in life is to wear (and be buried in) a Woodcock original; his seamstresses work through the night to mend a key dress once it is damaged; clients beg him to attend their functions. As coveted as he is, desire (both for his time, and talent) only repels Reynolds. Haunted—figuratively, and in one feverish scene, literally—by the memory of his mother (whose second bridal gown he and his sister broke superstition to make, as a child, and which he seems to believe may have cursed him), his dealings with the opposite sex are heady, brief, and fraught.
As is so often the case in the tale of the great male genius, passion is reserved for those who inspire—and a cold fury is for those who get in the way. Work is his real source of pleasure, and everyone and everything in his life is designed around aiding it, right down to Cyril’s time-honed manner of skillfully evacuating Reynolds’s love interests once his affections have gone stale, or they begin to butter their toast too loudly in the morning. Enter Alma, a waitress from the countryside whose luminous beauty and complete lack of pretension piques Reynolds’s interest. Given delicate strength by the Luxembourgian actress Vicky Krieps, Alma provides Reynolds with newfound energy and a surge of fresh inspiration. Serving as Reynolds’s muse, lover, and eventually caretaker, her transformation from guileless country girl into a partner capable of challenging his routine sets the plot into motion.
Rather than falling in line, Alma clings to the idea that she and Reynolds can enjoy the rituals of a normal partnership, even as his personality and the imbalance of power within their relationship makes that an impossibility. Like everyone else in Reynolds’s life, she exists to serve a function; her lithe body makes her an ideal fit model, her clear-eyed adoration makes her an ideal mirror. Though they’re meant to be engaged in a courtship, their relationship comes down to how Alma looks in his clothes, and how she fits into his precut patterns. When she attempts to treat him to dinner, he berates her for changing his schedule; when she complains about fabric, he belittles her taste. Dogged in her devotion—even as it drives her towards a plot twist that turns the film on its head—she eventually proves herself his equal by revealing a sadistic streak that earns his respect, or at least his submission; as it turns out, the tortured genius needs someone to torture him.
Possessing both the arrogance and impatience that have come to signify genius, on-screen Reynolds often seems like a symbol rather than a man—a stand-in for fashion as a concept, and the callousness that can come when style trumps substance. There are plenty of real-world influences for his persona.
Style-centric films tend to play out like parables, the impressive costumes and luxurious set pieces working to hide lessons about the danger of corrosive glamour. Phantom Thread continues that tradition, but it offers its fashion victim the opportunity to fight back. Alma’s resentment of Reynolds bubbles over into the year’s second-best mushroom-induced revenge moment—The Beguiled did it better—as her voice over delivers a monologue about the nature of their love. In a different story, Alma and years of scorned muses might have banded together for a brutal reprisal, a confrontation that might challenge this bastion of retro masculinity’s understanding of himself, and the film’s depiction of what it means to be a creator. Instead, she delivers passing gastrointestinal distress, and herself an utterly devoted submissive who she can nurture and keep all to herself—leading to another type of obsession, entirely, as the cycle begins again.