There are few more enticing prospects than Paul Thomas Anderson, one of our greatest living filmmakers, directing Daniel Day-Lewis, one of our finest actors.
Throw into the mix the frisson of extra excitement that comes with Day-Lewis’ claim that this will be his final acting role, and you have the ingredients for something unmissable.
Phantom Thread does not disappoint, but it does perplex. It’s a restrained masterpiece, seemingly austere but writhing under the surface with repressed desire and mental anguish, all set against a fabulous backdrop of lace and silk and regency-style opulence.
Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) is a high-society dress-maker, crafting exquisite, one-of-a-kind pieces from his London townhouse. He searches for intrinsic beauty, hidden beauty, lasting beauty. Like Steve Jobs, who insisted the iPod was as beautiful inside as it was out, Woodcock obsesses over detail, hiding little messages inside linings, knowing they will never be read. His dresses have, he thinks, an inherent value, even a life; when a woman slumps drunkenly while wearing one he insists that she remove it.
Upon escaping London in a natty little sports car, he stumbles upon an ungainly waitress called Alma. He sees something behind her ruddy cheeks, or at least recognises a face and figure that won’t compete with his work (when she wears lipstick he removes it for her with a napkin). They go on a date, and what she hopes will be a sexy time turns into something else entirely, with her standing in a slip, nipples hardened to the cold, while Woodcock’s viperous sister Cyril takes her measurements.
“You have no breasts,” he announces matter of factly.
“I’m sorry,” she mumbles.
“No, you’re perfect. It’s my job to give you some [Pinter pause]… If I choose.”
It’s all very uncomfortable, but tinged with a mania that leaves you on the verge of hysterics. It feels inappropriate, even exploitative, but it’s also consensual, and you get the impression all three of them – Woodcock, Alma and Cyril – are getting a kinky kick out of it.
Alma becomes his muse, with him dressing her up like a doll. When he finally says “You look beautiful,” it’s a compliment to himself.
Claims of misogyny have been levelled, arguments that Woodcock is an example of toxic masculinity, and that the central relationship is an abusive one. But this misses the point; while there’s no denying Woodcock is toxic, a broken, mentally ill man, it’s hardly an endorsement of his behaviour, and the “abuse” is far from one-sided.
For his part, Day-Lewis is an utter joy. His Woodcock is a Freudian monstrosity, so cutting and bitchy that in lesser hands – perhaps in any other hands – he would be a pantomime villain. But Day-Lewis is the best there is, with a ballerina’s control over every curl of his lip, and an opera singer’s precision over every vocal inflection. His character is devastating and sinister but also as fragile and petulant as a child. He has mother issues like you wouldn’t believe, sewing locks of her hair into his suits and having terrible, lucid nightmares of her standing over his bed. There’s something of the Norman Bates about him, which chimes with the overall Hitchcockian atmosphere (Anderson has cited Rebecca as an influence).
There’s an exploration of gender roles – Woodcock is a man for whom women are mothers and objects, which feels especially relevant in today’s climate – and some raking over familiar Anderson coals such as the loneliness of brilliance (see also: There Will Be Blood). But I was left with the impression that he really just wanted to make something beautiful and mad. He succeeds on both counts.
First published in City A.M.