London, the 1950s. Renowned couturier Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis) has run out of patience with his latest muse. His sister and manager Cyril (Lesley Manville), calmly suggests that he move on. The siblings share an unspoken bond after the death of their mother, which has deeply affected Reynolds. When Reynolds brings home a waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps), and starts fitting her out in his creations, Cyril hunkers down for the inevitable triangle that will play out in the household.
Alma is the picture of inelegance when she first sees Reynolds in a restaurant, but the designer spots in her the perfect object of experimentation. He likes women with a small belly, Cyril tells Alma by way of explanation.
Reynolds seeks to cut Alma out of the same cloth as himself and his sister, but the sprightly Alma resists his attempts at control. She shatters the breakfast rule of complete silence by buttering her toast too vigorously, and chafes at being treated on the same level as Reynolds’s all-women crew. The micro-management that governs the lives of the siblings – the atelier cannot work any other way – influences Alma as well as causes her to break out in unanticipated directions.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s subtly crafted stunner is less a fashion movie than a study of power equations. Modern psychologists might characterise the relationship that develops between the older sophisticated man and the younger inexperienced woman as co-dependent. Sociologists will see the unmistakable first stirrings of a gender war in the untrained Alma’s attempts to pick up the tricks of her patron’s trade and be regarded as his equal rather than a submissive muse.
Fans of Anderson will see the resurfacing of familiar themes, including the pursuit of an ideal at the risk of alienating loved ones, the tensions between authority figures and followers, and the peculiar nature of obsession, which transforms as well as tarnishes.
The age-old bruising encounters between men and women, romance and expectations, play out in a world in which perfection and obsession are professional requirements. Despite its haute couture backdrop, Phantom Thread has a pared-down and rough-hewn quality. The clothes are elegant without calling attention to themselves, and function as an extension of the tightly held emotional landscape that Reynolds and Cyril have created for themselves, one that Alma permanently disturbs.
The American director, shooting for the first time in the United Kingdom, focuses on the detailing rather than the broad canvas. The drama is filled with numerous and luminous close-ups – the director has also shot the movie – and moments that reveal the care and attentiveness that drive fashion. Sequences fall perfectly from one to the next, accompanied by Jonny Greenwood’s classical background score. The movie reaches its peak with a bruising spat between mentor and muse, after which it elegantly moves towards a hurried and unconvincing denouement.
The delicate balance of performances never wavers even in the final headscratching moments. Daniel Day Lewis, in what he has said is his final role, is typically brilliant as the self-absorbed designer, but his efforts are matched by the two main female characters. Lesley Manville, the fabulous actress from Another Year (2010), is stupendous as the perfectly coiffed Cyril, especially in the scene in which she demolishes her obdurate brother by reminding him of her superior debating skills. Vicky Krieps is stunning as Alma, matching Day Lewis in her rigour and determination.
Although Anderson’s screenplay doesn’t allow Alma’s actions to be adequately explained and papers over the class differences between the lovers, Krieps makes every scene of hers sparkle with her watchful intelligence and instinct for self-preservation. When Reynolds watches Alma let her hair down at a New Year’s Eve party, it is as if he is seeing her for the first time.
There are shades of Roman Polanski’s twisted relationship dramas in Phantom Thread, but without the savage honesty. In this atelier of intense emotions, Anderson has crafted an old-fashioned romance about the very foundation of modern romance. The title hints at the invisible skeins that run through the fabric of love itself. This phantom thread lingers, like the recurring ghost of the designer’s dead mother, to remind him and Alma of the ruffles and creases that can never be smoothed out. Rather than a love story, the movie is about the state of being in love.