Paul Thomas Anderson’s second collaboration with Daniel Day-Lewis concerns a fictional English fashion designer in the 1950s whose routine isolation is challenged by a young woman he meets by chance.
Many are indifferent to fashion, and I happen to be one of them. But I do recognize that for those who are interested, it can be a serious business, and with a lot of implications for how people see themselves, the world, and their role in it. Of course, fashion in film has a long history, because how characters in a movie dress says a lot about who they are.
Fashion takes center stage in a new film called Phantom Thread. Set in the 1950s, it features Daniel Day-Lewis as a fictional English fashion designer named Reynolds Woodcock, a perfectionist, absolutely addicted to his work, and having as clients some of the wealthiest women in the world. While he concentrates on designing beautiful dresses, the operational details of his firm, run from his London townhouse, are handled by his sister Cyril, played by Leslie Manville.
In the opening scenes we gather that Woodcock runs through young women lovers rather frequently, and that Cyril is tasked with the sorry business of letting them go when he becomes tired of them. Into the life of this pampered and obsessed genius comes by chance a young German-accented woman named Alma, a waitress at a restaurant he frequents when taking a break in the country. She is flattered by how he looks at her, and he in his turn sees her as a perfect model for the new creations he has planned. Alma is played by an actress from Luxembourg named Vicky Krieps, and although she has been in movies for some time, her finely modulated work here is a breakthrough.
Paul Thomas Anderson, the writer and director of Phantom Thread, is reunited here with Daniel Day-Lewis, ten years after his gritty oil baron saga There Will Be Blood, which earned Day-Lewis his second Oscar. I couldn’t imagine a film that contrasts more with that one than this fluid and luxuriant love story, and indeed one of the astonishing things about Daniel Day-Lewis is how he can become such different characters, to the point of disappearing into the roles. Think back not only to his cruel and stubborn character in There Will Be Blood, but also such roles as the boxer in the film of that name, the crime boss in Gangs of New York, or Abraham Lincoln—they’re all totally unique and totally convincing. In this film, he plays a very self-contained, capricious man, soft spoken, selfish but not unkind, capable of tenderness while seeming very shut off and unreachable. His art is more important to him than anything or anyone.
Anderson shows his own versatility and growth as a filmmaker here. The style is high classical, reminiscent of the greatest French directors such as Jean Renoir or Max Ophuls, or the Hollywood master William Wyler. The elegant production design is evident in every frame. The camera glides through the scenes to the exquisite rhythms of Jonny Greenwood’s lush musical score.
Surprisingly, the true hero of the piece turns out to be the outsider Alma, who genuinely loves Woodcock but realizes that his loneliness is so deep that he’s not even aware of it, which ultimately poses a danger to his better nature. It looks like the old pattern will repeat itself, and that Woodcock will discard her like he has so many others. How can she change that outcome? Her solution is so outrageous that you may doubt her sanity, nevertheless there is an amazingly strong will beneath the surface of this seemingly shy young woman. The result is by no means predictable.
You won’t see a more beautiful film from all of last year than Phantom Thread. Along with the sumptuous visual style, Anderson skillfully allows the characters to breathe, to speak and listen in natural, unforced ways. In a world striving for perfect form, we sense a strange and hidden disorder. Love, even in such a rarefied atmosphere, is a hard thing requiring great courage. Phantom Thread takes the desperate needs of the heart all the way to the end.