Phantom Thread

After a pair of exceptionally baffling films – The Master and Inherent Vice – Paul Thomas Anderson returns with an original story that is much more accessible, if a little perverse.

Phantom Thread concerns a fashion designer in 1950s London with the preposterous name of Reynolds Woodcock, played by Daniel Day-Lewis in what the actor insists is his final role. Despite his asexual personality and codependent relationship with his sister Cyril (Leslie Manville), Reynolds is a ladykiller, and as the story opens he is dumping the latest in what we imagine to be a series of frustrated, ignored girlfriends. Seemingly seconds later, he meets Alma (Luxembourg actress Vicky Krieps), a waitress at a restaurant near his country home, and finds in her qualities that complement his fastidiousness and droll humor. He asks her to dinner. Later that night, he is taking Alma's measurements while Cyril comes in close to smell what Alma ate for dinner. Some first date! That Alma takes it in good stride says as much about her as the Woodcocks' eccentric behavior says about them.

Once she becomes Reynolds's muse, however, Alma soon bristles at playing second fiddle to his obsessive workaholism. Meanwhile, her desire to occasionally break Reynolds's arbitrary rules brings him to the verge of an Aspergers-like meltdown. (The sound mixing in Phantom Thread is a treat, with every crunch of Alma's toast boring into Reynolds's brain.) Back and forth they go, each jockeying for power in this warped romance.

For a while, Phantom Thread seems a fitting bookend to Day-Lewis's career, its sumptuous period visuals and stiff British attitudes reminding me of Day-Lewis's breakout A Room with a View. Then halfway through the film, the story takes an unexpected turn, and we're back in Anderson territory, with another of the director's oddball couples.

I won't give any more away, but even though Phantom Thread remains somewhat inscrutable, like Anderson's other recent films, there's one detail that provides a hint: Reynolds confides in Alma that he hides secret messages within the seams of his dresses. It's not hard to infer that Anderson is likewise infusing Phantom Thread with his own secret messages, and that the film is inspired by his own relationship with actress Maya Rudolph, surely a formidable match for the director even at his most workaholic. (Day-Lewis's enduring marriage to writer/director Rebecca Miller likely informs the film as well.) In this respect, the film plays out as a sort of romantic comedy, of all things.

This is a handsome production through and through, with Anderson serving himself well as his own cinematographer, Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood providing a lush piano-charged score, and costume designer Mark Bridges contributing loads of spectacular '50s frocks. You might well find it boring, and the ending's a bit of a shrug, but it's always fun to see what Daniel Day-Lewis gets up to, and the film looks great. I think it's worth a watch.