It takes its time getting there, but Paul Thomas Anderson’s sartorial drama eventually reveals itself as a wryly cynical portrait of codependency.
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville
Runtime: 130 mins
Release date: 2 February 2018
“You look beautiful. You’re making me extremely hungry,” says Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) to Alma (Vicky Krieps) in Phantom Thread, the new film from Paul Thomas Anderson. There’s something vampiric about Reynolds. A much admired, much sought after fashion designer in 1950s London, he lures young women to him. They become his muses, and he sucks them dry of inspiration and beauty until, in the words of his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), “They sit around waiting for you to fall in love with them again.” Then they’re gifted a dress and turned out.
Alma is the latest in this parasitical cycle. When Reynolds first encounters her, she is waitressing at a country hotel where he orders an expansive breakfast: Welsh rabbit, poached eggs, scones, cream, jam (not strawberry), and Lapsang tea. He invites Alma to dinner, then takes her back to his estate where he avidly takes her measurements as if she were a piece of meat. As it turns out, he’s bitten off more than he can chew.
Day-Lewis plays Reynolds like a timeless, immortal being. His clipped English accent occasionally drops into the husky rasp of a creature for whom death is unknown. The three-time Oscar winner is reportedly retiring from acting, and as a swansong performance, this is mesmerising. Krieps, meanwhile, impresses by managing to hold her own against the veteran thespian. Alma appears virginal and besotted with her benefactor, but as Phantom Thread progresses she slowly transforms into something else; a witch, a temptress, a succubus. Reynolds and Alma enter into a battle of wills, manipulating and deceiving and positioning, getting the other to where each can feed more fully.
To be clear, Reynolds is not really an ageless vampire, and Alma is not a succubus. But Anderson’s film has the air of fantasy, of fairy tale, of fable. Characters pick mushrooms in the forest, and Alma uses these to concoct what is, narratively speaking, a love potion. Jonny Greenwood’s score flirts with the magical, underpinning this strange relationship with timeless fantasy, but never actually tipping over into romance. This is a relationship based, not on physical attraction or even love, but on need. Reynolds needs inspiration; Alma needs to be needed.
It all feels so slight, so subtle, that watching Phantom Thread – actually sitting in the cinema and experiencing it for the first time – can feel underwhelming. There is clearly something going on under the surface, some deeper meaning, but it eludes us. Anderson teases us with superstitions, with charms and fetishes sewn into the linings of dresses, with endless talk of hunger, but seems to lead us nowhere.
It’s not until Phantom Thread’s final ten minutes that Anderson reveals his hand. Then the film shifts and morphs before our eyes, like a Necker cube, becoming a wry, almost cynical portrait of codependency. I won’t spoil things here, but think Beauty and the Beast, except Belle and the Beast willingly entrap themselves in an endless cycle of cures and relapses.
Watching Phantom Thread is like watching one of Reynolds’ dresses being made. Swathes of cloth are laid out, with no discernible form. Patterns and hues are held up, thrown out, and it all seems directionless and, dare I say it, pointless. Then the fabric takes shape, and with the last stitch we see a secret, a message, sewn into the lining, and it all becomes clear.