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.
Ultimately, however, it doesn’t fit into any category. After beginning his career by masterfully synthesizing his influences, Anderson entered the Reynolds Woodcock phase of his filmmaking career some time ago. He doesn’t make items made to hang on racks for mass consumption. He makes bespoke creations to satisfy some muse who speaks solely to him. Paul Thomas Anderson makes Paul Thomas Anderson movies.
Speaking to Entertainment Weekly, Anderson has said the film was inspired by the life of Cristóbal Balenciaga, a “monastic” designer of exacting standards. A study of that kind of life — isolated, obsessed — might have been compelling on its own terms. Here Anderson uses it as raw material to explore some themes that have become central to his work: the way we struggle to control one another, the ways we seek connection and love, and the how those twin pursuits sometimes overlap. It ends up finding some seemingly impossible middle ground between There Will Be Blood and Punch-Drunk Love, turning a struggle for leverage at the most intimate level into an unusual love story.
Much has been made of Day-Lewis’ announcement that this will be his final film. We’ll see if that takes, but if this is the actor’s last hurrah, it will be a fine note on which to end. Reynolds isn’t Day-Lewis’ showiest role — that would almost certainly be Bill The Butcher in Gangs of New York. And it’s not immersive like his Lincoln work, in which it was sometimes easy to forget we were watching Daniel Day-Lewis. Day-Lewis thoroughly inhabits the character, however. He conveys who Reynolds is at every moment, from the first time we see him meticulously trimming his nose hairs to an early interaction with a client that’s as emotionally complex as a love scene.
It’s not, however, entirely Day-Lewis’ movie. Manville, a Mike Leigh regular, says little as Cyril but makes every word count. She’s imposing just looming in the frame, waiting for a moment to assert her position as the only person in Reynold’s life who will go the distance. 2017 has seen many scarier movies than Phantom Thread, but few more unnerving moments than Manville asserting that Reynolds “wouldn’t like” something and rolling into the line a multitude of horrific, unspoken consequences.
Krieps is no less remarkable. Born in Luxembourg, she has only a handful of small credits in English-language films to her name, and that lack of any association with past roles works for the character. Like Krieps, Alma seems to have come out of nowhere. She has no attachments, speaks with a hard-to-pin-down accent, and we learn nothing of her past. In some moments, it feels like Reynolds summoned her. In others, it feels like he’s been cursed with her. Krieps’ sphinx-like performance largely keeps the character’s secrets to herself.
Though in some ways the movie is driven by the unraveling of those secrets, they ultimately have less to do with hidden motivations or veiled identities than the murky terrain of the human heart. Anderson has made a strange, entrancing, often darkly funny film that’s at once like nothing he’s ever made and one no one else could make, one filled with some of the year’s most striking images — the sun beating down on a snow-covered lodge, a New Year’s celebration that Woodcock watches without being able to join — and characters whose passion gets in the way of their happiness, and whose ways of doing things sometimes have to be broken if they have any hope of happiness at all.
Phantom Thread opens in limited release on Christmas Day before expanding.