Perhaps the most bizarre romantic comedy ever made.
Some movies are so atmospheric that they transport us to a fully realized world. They provide a sensuous experience, not only because they anchor us with a strong sense of time and place, but because their emotional texture is of a piece with the world they create. Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name, or Pablo Larrain’s Jackie are good examples. Even though they are tonally different, in them, milieu and feeling are totally intertwined. These are the only kinds of films that I feel compelled, almost beyond reason, to watch again. They are fetishistic in the best possible way.
This is the case with Phantom Thread, written and directed by P.T. Anderson. The almost monastic, if not downright funereal world that couturier Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis) inhabits is deliciously claustrophobic. In clinical white surroundings, Woodcock creates couture gowns in jewel tones, hand-sewn by a platoon of silent seamstresses. The House of Woodcock is like a mausoleum. Reynolds is exacting and impossible, but he is also a sensitive. He sews little secret thoughts into the folds of his creations. He is like a marvelous, difficult child. The atmosphere is wonderfully cold and hushed. The score by Jonny Greenwood provides a lush, romantic counterpoint to the icy silence.
Reynolds’ genius is abetted by his sister Cyril (the spectacular Lesley Manville). They are quite a pair. She indulges his every whim and allows him to be bratty and peevish, for he is a control freak who demands total devotion. Cyril takes care of business and gets rid of his uncomprehending girlfriends. She has dedicated her life to her brother’s genius and she makes sure everyone notices her sacrifice by acting like a Sphinx encased in ice. The Woodcock siblings’ rapport is so deep and eccentric they make everyone around them feel like undeserving aliens.
A major disruptor appears in the form of Alma (the excellent Vicky Krieps, who gives as good as she gets from these two monsters of acting), a waitress whom Reynolds meets at a small inn by the sea. He is smitten by her unpretentious beauty. Being used to lording it over everyone, he courts her by using her as a model for his creations, as a mannequin. At first she submits. Who wouldn’t be flattered by the attentions of a revered fashion designer who looks like Daniel Day Lewis?
A triangle emerges between Cyril, who guards her brother zealously, and Alma, who is not all that impressed with the aura of deathly reverence that surrounds him. Day Lewis has a quiet field day as a male wallflower who is coy and imperious at once. I’m despondent that he has decided to stop acting now that his swan song is a movie in which he shows his knack for comedy. It’s not laugh out loud stuff, but he is slyly funny, and he deploys humor in precise, lethal doses.
Anderson spends time showing us the exquisite care with which Woodcock creates his dresses. Reynolds is an artist, even if sometimes he has to dress uncouth women who don’t deserve his genius. He does create beautiful dresses (exquisitely designed by longtime Anderson collaborator Mark Bridges) but you’d think he was painting the Sistine Chapel. To me, the most resonant aspect of the movie is not the portrait of the artist as a demanding maniac, or an uncompromising visionary, but the love story. The exploration of the side of love that is close to madness. The give and pull of two people with strong wills, and how love is negotiation, complicity, possessiveness, jealousy, a battle of wits, a desperate need for attention. Alma turns out to be a strong woman who ends up rebelling at being the perfect object of Woodcock’s gaze. She may also have a mild case of Munchausen by Proxy syndrome, and though at first I balked at the extremity of this plot twist, the more I think about it, the more I see that her crazy love indeed manages to change this rigid man. It takes two to tango, so there is enormous, perverse grace in the fact that he finally opts to relinquish control. What is love if not consenting to abandon ourselves to the will of others? Plus, Woodcock is twisted enough to oblige. Phantom Thread is a haunting love story, with one of the most grotesque yet endearing happy endings in the history of movies.