The delectable peculiarities of “Phantom Thread” come from all over, from countless inspirations. Some are cinematic: Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 Gothic standard “Rebecca,” for one, and David Lean’s little-known and fascinating 1949 romantic triangle “The Passionate Friends,” for another.
Other inspirations are personal, presumably, since a movie this distinctive in its delicate perversity is likely saying something about the preoccupations and ambitions of its writer-director, Paul Thomas Anderson, and its star, Daniel Day-Lewis.
The actor, whom Anderson says had a considerable, uncredited hand in the shaping of the material, claims this will be his final screen role. He has said also that he and Anderson laughed a great deal as they were preparing “Phantom Thread.” Shooting it, however, in cramped quarters on location in London and elsewhere, was “a nightmare” that left the famously obsessive actor feeling a bit crushed and more than a little sad.
Seeing the movie, you understand the mood swings. Anderson and his exquisitely, tactfully mobile camera explore a marriage in a constant state of dynamic, even sociopathic tension. More narrowly, the film is a portrait of a certain kind of male temperament that’s just asking for a comeuppance. In that regard “Phantom Thread” connects to everything going on in the culture right now. And yet it’s about the least topical thing you can imagine: Its insular, spellbinding gorgeousness is the work of creative artists on their own wavelength.
The setting of “Phantom Thread” is the high fashion world of 1950s London. Anderson treats his subject, and his shape-shifting story, to a series of luxe, swank images. The protagonist, Reynolds Jeremiah Woodcock, exerts every ounce of taste, focus and control he can muster to create gowns for a rarefied clientele of royalty and lesser mortals. Business is slipping; the House of Woodcock has its more modish competitors.
But Reynolds, whose mother issues lurk in the shadows, continues to devote his life to his work, carving out room only for his business partner sister, Cyril, played with sly authority by Lesley Manville, with an air of “Rebecca” and Mrs. Danvers about her. Early in the film we see Reynolds and Cyril at breakfast with Reynolds’ latest temporary muse, model and paramour. This interloper’s usefulness to the House of Woodcock has run its course. Cyril, whom Reynolds calls “my old so-and-so,” suggests a change of scenery.
Alone, traveling to his cottage in the country, Reynolds meets a waitress at a seaside inn. She is Alma, of uncertain extraction. The actress who plays her, Vicky Krieps, is from Luxembourg, and she is excellent, at once emotionally open and a master concealer when the central relationship in the film demands it.
“Phantom Thread” jostles these two together, abruptly; this is not a Gothic romance much interested in the getting-to-know-you sequences. Too many other things are going on to compete with the ordinary expository business. Reynolds is visited in his dreams by the ghost of his mother; there’s a metaphysical element to Anderson’s tale that remains frustratingly oblique.
As Alma and Reynolds come to know each other, it’s a chaste depiction of love between strangely matched equals. Alma appreciates the finery she’s a part of, but does Reynolds see her as anything more than a clothes rack with a beating heart? Probably, but one of the triumphs of “Phantom Thread” lies in Day-Lewis’ witty dissection of an aesthete who cannot abide the sound of his wife eating cereal in the morning. (Anderson’s shot of Day-Lewis unconsciously mimicking Krieps’ way of biting down on her spoon is one of a hundred wonderful details in the movie.)
Where this marriage goes, and what Alma does to course-correct her spouse’s less attractive traits, takes “Phantom Thread” into unexpected territory. Parts of the film, played up in the trailer, suggest an intoxicating, windswept romance laden with secrets; other parts go for wild tonal change-ups, on par with the raucous black-comic coda of “There Will Be Blood” (2007), Anderson’s previous collaboration with Day-Lewis. The movie feels both expansive and confining, depending on the story chapter. Anderson’s visual facility by now has become so intuitive, so fluid and effortlessly right, if you’re at all susceptible to the allure of a moving camera you’ll fall headlong into “Phantom Thread.”
At one point Reynolds and Alma vacation in the Alps; back in London, there’s an elaborate New Year’s Eve sequence, both scenes derived from Lean’s “Passionate Friends.” Bits of the character of Reynolds evoke real-life designer Norman Hartnell. The production design by Mark Tildesley, Mark Bridges’ costumes, the cinematography (uncredited; Anderson worked with several people): All these elements cohere into a beauty of a picture that grows weirder and more compelling as it goes.
It must be said, I suppose: Where “Phantom Thread” dares to tread may exasperate anyone looking for a disposable exercise in movie nostalgia. When Alma feels her happiness slipping away, her solution is at once alarming and effective. I’d characterize Anderson’s film as a romantic comedy with an unusually complicated and profoundly destabilizing happy ending. If that sounds like your thing, then here you are. Oh, this, too: If there’s a better piece of film music in theaters at the moment than Jonny Greenwood’s astonishing “House of Woodcock” theme, I can’t wait to hear it. Max Ophuls and Douglas Sirk only wish their movies featured such ironic-romantic grandeur on the soundtrack.
Starring: Vicky Krieps, Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville
Rating: R for language
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Theaters: Alamo Ritz, Arbor, Violet Crown