If I had walked into Phantom Thread knowing the film was a romantic comedy, I would have had a much different, less confusing experience. Paul Thomas Anderson's latest feature film has touches of The Master in that both films focus on an obsessive creator whose world is altered by the arrival of a newcomer. Here, that creator is Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis). As head of London's House of Woodcock, Reynolds is the master dressmaker (loosely based on obsessive fashion designer Cristobal Balenciaga) whose designs grace the bodies of Europe's elite and nobility in the 1950s, but as with any artist, he is sensitive and mercurial. His delicate being is managed and protected by his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), who keeps him to a monk-like, finely tuned routine. The slightest disagreement is, to him, an attack on his creative genius. But we're led to believe his testy personality is worth it, as his gowns are so gorgeous and pristine they transform his clients into queens.
Reynolds' world changes the minute he sets eyes on young waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps), a young, spirited woman who smiles away her embarrassment of stumbling at a countryside inn. She's immediately drawn to Reynolds, too; after taking his lengthy meal order, she leaves him a flirty note, calling him a "hungry boy." Inspired by Alma's youthful features and presence, Reynolds takes her measurements on their first date so as to make a dress for her (but not without throwing in a few casual barbs at her bustline and physique); she soon becomes his full-time model, live-in assistant and muse.
As narrated in a late-night, intimate conversation that becomes a through-line for the film, Alma falls in love with Reynolds, and their creative collaboration complements their courtship. Food and the color purple serve as recurring motifs and innuendo. But just as quickly as her love grows, Alma's own carefree personality begins to bristle against that of Reynolds, causing disruption to his exacting demeanor. When Alma decides to plan a nice surprise dinner for Reynolds, he cruelly expresses his distaste for the jolt in his schedule. Alma then cleverly concocts a scheme to rein in Reynolds for his own good—which leads to the most gratifying overturn of his domineering persona and the biggest twist of the film.
Reynolds' fussy, cantankerous disposition wears on the viewer's senses, but it's easier to sit through thanks to Day-Lewis. Anyone who knows anything about the actor knows he immerses himself in his roles (for this film, he apprenticed under Marc Happel, the costume director for the New York City Ballet), so there's obvious parallels in both men's approach to their crafts. In Reynolds' moments of contentment and peace, there's a wistful gleam in Day-Lewis' eye that lures us in, a bolt of lightning that hits as he furrows his brow in concentration. (Prior to the film's release, Day-Lewis announced his retirement from acting onscreen, and if it's true, it will be a real shame.) Krieps is a brilliant match for Day-Lewis, and her calm demeanor shows both strength and winsomeness.
As I try to recalibrate my understanding of the film, it's hard to fall in love with Phantom Thread's vision of love. Alma, a headstrong young lady who knows how to make the right moves, is just a mannequin to Reynolds throughout much of the movie, fulfilling the trope of muse to a demanding creator, a theme that has been done to exhaustion. Although she has agency, Alma's a less manic Manic Pixie Dream Girl into whose origin or life outside the House of Woodcock we are given no insight. And save for one small interaction, Phantom Thread won't pass any Bechdel tests.
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If anything, Phantom Thread is a comedic love story with a strange, perverse twist, dressed up as an illustrious period drama à la Downton Abbey and The Crown. But despite the sumptuous meal of exquisite performances, Anderson's humor and a beautiful costume design, I was, like Reynolds, a "hungry boy" who was left wanting more.
Phantom Thread was written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; and stars Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps and Lesley Manville. Opens nationwide Jan. 19.