“Phantom Thread” begins with good grooming. That might be praiseworthy and, with another actor, it might perilously border on vanity, but under the careful gaze of director Paul Thomas Anderson (“There Will Be Blood” and “Inherent Vice”), Daniel Day Lewis is a man imprisoned by ritual. “Phantom Threat” is about the man, his muse and the savior-complex with a twist of masochism.
Set in post-war London in the 1950s, the movie focuses on a renowned high-end London dressmaker, Reynolds Woodcock. Reynolds dresses movie stars, heiresses, socialites, debutants and dames on the wrong side of drink. He is the House of Woodcock’s creative center while his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville) is the business manager. Oh, the ties that bind! They were taught their craft by their mother who, though dead, hovers over them still connected by the threads of imagination and memory. Reynolds sewed his mother’s wedding dress when she remarried. When she reappears to Reynolds, it is always in that dress that was Reynolds’ first inspiration, but also allegedly a curse on the unmarried women who helped sew it. Those women like Cyril would never marry.
When asked, Reynolds himself will allow, ” I’m certain I was never meant to marry. I’m a confirmed bachelor. I’m incurable.”
Creativity might suffocate under too many restrictions and Reynolds requires a muse. We see the last one at breakfast. She is past her expiration date and Cyril, in a tone that speaks of experience to the point of ingrained habit, tells Reynolds she will take care of this one. Out of pity dyed with impatient efficiency, Cyril claims she doesn’t want to watch the girl hopelessly attempt to win Reynolds’ love back.
Reynolds must, however, find a new muse. To that end, he goes out of London and into the country and picks up a young waitress (Vicky Krieps). She is flattered by his attention. He takes her to fine dining and finally to his country house where he asks her to undress. Yet before any seduction, and the woman, Alma (which in Spanish means “soul”), must be measured and Cyril pops in–unexpected by Alma, but not by Reynolds. Cyril takes down the measurements, ones more detailed than the usual bust-waist-hip vital statistics.
Alma becomes first Reynolds’ muse, then his lover and then an assistant. In this very practical household, everyone must work and Alma sometimes assists with the cooking. Alma gets used to the fine dinners, the fine dresses and yet is not so impressed by the behavior of the rich and boorishly drunk. She is more than a muse, she becomes a protector of the House of Woodcock and seems unaware that her time is coming to an end. When she does, she clings to her dreams because “Reynolds has made my dreams come true. And I had given him what he desires most in return….Every piece of me.”
From Jonny Greenwood’s music, to the direction, writing and cinematography by Anderson to the editing by Dylan Tichenor to the costumes by Mark Bridges, this is a beautifully made tailored piece about obsession and design. Sewing geeks can appreciate the care of each stitch and detail such as the wedding dress interview. For those who know fine lace (handmade from Europe) or, like myself, made their own wedding dresses, some of the details are swoon-worthy. The soundtrack moves us in what appears to be a period piece of manners and never overtly suggests the psychological drama. That comes as a subtle surprise, but not one unfairly sprung upon the audience. Shouldn’t we always have wondered: What happens when the muse is not amused?
In Anderson’s “Phantom Threat,” the savior complex is pulled from the romance drama where the woman is neither savior or saved and made into something less savory. Have we questioned what the win is for the woman? Anderson provides an answer.
The role of Reynolds Woodcock is a triumph for Daniel Day-Lewis and together with Lesley Manville and Vicky Krieps a creepy ménage à trois has been sewn together. There will be no blood, but there will be maneuvering for control like a Machiavellian minuet. “Phantom Thread” is both lovely and disturbing and there’s not a note, step or stitch out of place.