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In the magnificent Phantom Thread, Daniel Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a couture dressmaker with a penchant for secrecy. In 1950s London, his name is synonymous with prestige and status. He clients—the rich, famous, and sometime royal—don’t quite appreciate his art, so he sews secret messages into his creations as a way to express himself. He has all the trapping of success, including celebrity, riches, and scores of adoring young women whom he rotates in and out of his bed, but something inside him yearns to be seen by those who would take the trouble to look.
On the surface, Phantom Thread looks a lot like other “male genius” films, the kind that ask viewers to forgive the abuse or neglect they heap on their wives so that we can celebrate their art. There is a brilliant male, Woodcock, and a beautiful young muse—Alma (Vicky Krieps, who matches Day-Lewis’s power in every frame), a country waitress whom Reynolds turns his intense gaze on and who quickly falls under his spell. For the first half of the film, their relationship unfolds according to his every whim. His work habits leave no room for meaningful human contact, and when the women he allows to share his home inevitably want more from him, his hard-edged sister and business partner Cyril (Lesley Manville) kicks them to the curb. As we watch the seemingly innocent Alma fall for Reynolds, her fate seems sadly predetermined.
Though writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson films these sequences from Woodcock’s perspective, we are never fully on his side. In one of the funniest scenes, Woodcock gets visibly annoyed at Alma for buttering her toast too loudly over breakfast, when all he wants is peace and quiet. The film laughs at his self-seriousness, yet we still feel sympathy for his predicament. It’s a masterful performance by Day-Lewis, who cleaves open the sexy, stern genius archetype and reveals the selfish child underneath.
Under Anderson’s watchful, thoughtful eye, nothing is taken for granted. His camera (for the first time, Anderson acts as his own director of photography) glides through the elegant townhouse where Reynolds works and lives, and while some filmmakers would focus on the ornate architecture, Anderson is more interested in the human spaces. Often set against white walls or bright daylight, Day-Lewis’ face has never seemed more angular, hinting at hidden demons.
Alternatively, Krieps’ face is pink and cherubic, which only tees you up for the surprising shift that occurs in the film’s second half when Alma shows that she will not be excised from his life without a fight.
The shift is a small one—a tiny drop that creates a tidal wave of change—but it alters the story and its comment on the male genius significantly. When Alma claims a bit of power for herself (in a twist I wouldn’t dare to spoil), it sets up a confrontation between lovers that unfolds in unexpected ways. Especially in the #MeToo era, we may yearn to see Woodcock ruined for his attitudes toward women, but Anderson would rather see a balance achieved. As Day-Lewis and Krieps each seek the upper hand, insulting each other with both words and deeds, Phantom Thread emerges as Anderson’s funniest and most hopeful film yet, a relationship comedy hiding inside a gothic romance.
It’s a delightfully wicked turn in a film so wonderfully out-of-step with Hollywood expectations that it might as well have been directed by an alien observing human life. There are no contemporary cinematic guideposts for Phantom Thread; it is moved only by Anderson’s peculiar vision. Looking at the human condition from an acute angle, it finds a secret passage directly into the perverse corners of the heart. I’m grateful it took the trouble to look.
Phantom Thread opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row Cinema, and at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.