Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) has a certain way of doing things. He wakes up, performs a meticulous grooming routine, dresses, and enjoys a breakfast that eases him into yet another day of creating. The slightest interruption can throw him off, be it a demand from the latest woman to share the breakfast table with Reynolds and his sister Cyril (Leslie Manville) or the scraping of butter across toast that’s just a little bit too loud. It’s a rigid routine, but one that’s served him well. The head of the House Of Woodcock, he’s risen to the top of the haute couture world of post-war London. His clients come to him not to be dressed but to be transformed, leaving with dresses created specifically for them via an exacting process that sees Reynolds’ designs — modern, classically inspired, and invariably stunning — realized by a team of artisans overseen by Cyril. And then the next day starts and they do it all over again.
It’s not the only repeating pattern that plays out in Reynolds’ life. In the opening scenes of The Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson’s eighth feature film, we watch as a breakfast conversation with his latest lover — overseen, as always, by Cyril — goes south. Its followed by Reynolds and Cyril coming to the conclusion that it’s time for his latest flame to go. After all, there’s no future in it and, as Cyril points out, she’s getting a bit fat waiting for Reynolds to pay attention to her again. It’s clearly not the first time this scene has played out between them. And it almost certainly won’t be the last.
Unless, of course, it is. Having traveled ahead of Cyril to their house on the country, Reynolds takes breakfast alone at a small restaurant where he’s waited on by Alma (Vicky Krieps), who’s charmed by his voracious appetite and agrees to see him that evening. They dine together and end up at his home where he begins measuring her for a dress. But what she reads as a flirtation becomes more ambiguous when Cyril shows up and begins writing down Alma’s measurements. A scene for two has become a scene for three and it’s not clear to Alma what role she’s supposed to play.
Nor is it clear at this point what kind of movie Anderson has made, a bit of ambiguity that persists until the film’s final moments and helps give The Phantom Thread its charge. It’s lush and filled with glamorous trappings and at heart it’s about an intense attraction, but it would be misleading to call it romantic. It draws deeply from Hitchcock, especially Vertigo, with its protagonist whose obsessions reshape a woman’s identity, and Rebecca, with the Cyril hovering in disapproval like Mrs. Danvers. But it never becomes a thriller, at least not in the conventional sense. Anderson cuts intermittently to Alma delivering some kind of confession to a character left unrevealed for much of the film, but it’s not readily apparent what she’s confessing or even if there’s anything to confess. Meanwhile, Jonny Greenwood’s score provides little guidance, discordant one moment, swooning the next, and frequently circling back to a pleasantly jazzy theme that sounds like something Vince Guraldi could have written for an unfilmed Peanuts special.