Phantom Thread weaves a twisted tale of psychological brinksmanship.
Daniel Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock (no snickering!), a celebrated couture fashion designer who makes dresses for the very rich or royal. Similar to lead characters in The Master and There Will Be Blood, Woodcock is a charismatic leader who’s obsessed with perfection and will stop at nothing to achieve it. It’s not until he meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), a beautiful waitress at a local restaurant, that he finally meets his match. After she becomes his muse, Woodcock’s world begins to shift on its foundations.
The movie opens with a beautiful sequence that shows the daily arrival of employees at Woodcock’s atelier – a chic mansion in London where we spend most of the movie. Led by his sister and business manager, Cyril (the AMAZING Lesley Manville), we watch as windows are opened and tea is prepared. Seamstresses climb the stairs to rooms where they’ll spend the day constructing Woodcock’s creations. The editing and shot selection for this sequence is enough to give any fashion fan chills. Every cut (both film and clothing) is portrayed with precise perfection. I can’t count the number of times I saw a close up of a threaded needle passing through a shimmering piece of fabric. (Amazingly, Anderson did his own cinematography.)
Honestly, I was a little put off by all the baroque flourishes at first; like I was visiting a historical home and admiring all the details from behind a velvet rope. But each time the film began to feel a little too precious, Anderson would switch to an unstable, hand held camera, or a character would act out in an unexpected and shocking way that would bring everything back down to earth.
One of the first psychological showdowns occurs at breakfast time and is just the first of many sequences involving food and the ritual of consumption. Woodcock likes to sketch while having breakfast, but at this particular occasion, his current lover and muse decides she’s had enough of his stonewalling and refuses to wait any longer for his attention. After she leaves, Cyril doesn’t bat an eye and proceeds with the day’s list of duties.
Eventually, Woodcock meets his match when he is served by Alma at a local restaurant. He flirts with her by ordering an obscene amount of food (more consumption) and soon she’s visiting his studio to be measured both physically and mentally by Reynolds and Cyril. At first, Cyril regards Alma as just another one of Reynolds toys, but Alma refuses to back down easily and, instead, finds ways (both subtle and obvious) to assert her presence and make it known that she is not to be manipulated or disposed of.
Maybe it’s the gay in me, but I was far more interested in the conflict between Cyril and Alma than I was in the Alma/Reynolds relationship; probably because I so admired Lesley Manville’s performance. Unfortunately, it’s not the kind of flashy or sympathetic role that usually gets awards attention, but Manville is able to say more with a raised eyebrow or pursed mouth than most actors can do with their entire bodies. Krieps’ Alma is more broad but I loved all of her unexpected moments that featured Alma’s acting out. The final showdown between the three lead actors is so delicious, I don’t want to ruin it for you.
Now that I think about it, Phantom Thread and Hitchcock’s Rebecca would make an excellent double feature. Could Woodcock’s name be a direct homage to Hitchcock’s masterpiece of psychological suspense? The resemblance between Rebecca’s Mrs. Danvers and Phantom Thread’s Cyril is “unambiguous” (as Cyril would say).