Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread, with Daniel Day-Lewis’s alleged final performance, is as mysterious as its title suggests. Like much of Paul Thomas Anderson’s work, the movie is hypnotic, engrossing–and restless. Watching one of Anderson’s movies can be an exercise in surrender: the path can feel circuitous, and the destination sometimes unfathomable. At the end, I always have a strong gut reaction to each Anderson film, whether it’s completely awe-inspired (There Will Be Blood, The Master) or sharply disappointed (Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love).


For Phantom Thread, my initial read fell somewhere in the middle. As mesmerizing as the visual and aural experience is–and it is, from the grandeur of Jonny Greenwood’s neo-classic Hollywood score to the fastidious miseenscène, with costumes and furniture arranged just so–somehow the movie resists seducing us fully. This may be because the ostensible star (Day-Lewis) inhabits a stuffy fashion designer with little inclination for kindness, warmth, or humor (other than his name, Reynolds Woodcock). He is a tough character to spend two hours with. Anderson’s movie takes on the formal language of this character, so that the movie is a crisply patterned, tightly controlled affair.  

Opposite him is his angel and devil–the young Alma (Vicky Krieps), who becomes his muse, his lover, and his tormentor. She disrupts his lifestyle, and we can see the warring impulses within him to simultaneously embrace and rebuke her for her transgressions. Love to Reynolds must be conditional. When they meet, he is clearly entranced by this waif-like creature and her charming clumsiness; but once she is living in his London townhouse, assisting with his work, and sharing a breakfast table, he realizes she is out of place. What Reynolds, and his steely sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), don’t realize is Alma’s sheer strength of will. She will not be cast aside easily.

Like Alma, Krieps goes toe to toe with the lauded Day-Lewis, and comes out his equal on screen. She feels like a discovery, giving a tender but gutsy read on this woman who isn’t afraid to fight for the love she wants. It’s not just love, but control; the more vulnerable Reynolds is, the more loving he acts toward her. Their scenes together bristle with unexpressed infatuation, though clouded by more mundane insults and hostilities. When they reach a detente, we see the change in Day-Lewis’s physicality; he holds himself less firmly, looks directly and kindly at Krieps. And Manville’s Cyril, with a watchful eye over every move they make, has the most delicious cutting remark for every occasion. An iceberg that will never melt, she dresses down her brother once, and it’s a doozy: “Don’t pick a fight with me. You certainly won’t come out alive.”

Anderson’s movie takes inspiration from stories like Pygmalion and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, but with a more forthrightly feminist ending. Alma is not here to accept this man’s toxic behavior; she is no shrew to be tamed. Still, for all of the movie’s restrained elegance, its decided tastefulness can feel mannered as the minutes go by, especially as the relationship begins to retread familiar ground. Bursts of melodramatic tension come from the most unbearably small things: a plate of asparagus, cooked in butter instead of oil, sets off a war. Even the Woodcock world of fashion is, surprisingly, on the margins of the movie, without much commentary on the industry other than watching its effect on its creator. 

Yet even at its most inscrutable, Phantom Thread has a captivating effect. Anderson’s nimble writing lets us lament the quiet violence of Reynolds’s masculinity while we also savor the wryly comic tug-of-war between them. I find I can’t shake the movie’s luxurious spell two weeks later, from Greenwood’s sweeping strings to Daniel Day-Lewis furrowing his brow at us for the last time.

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