Daniel Day-Lewis attended this year’s Golden Globes with a shaved head, looking uncannily like Matt Lauer. Every time the camera cut to him, he’d be smiling gently and for a moment, before the correct solution clicked into place, your brain would have to reconcile the idea that a notorious abuser was sitting placidly in a ballroom full of angry women.
There couldn’t have been a better trailer for Day-Lewis’s new film, The Phantom Thread, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Day-Lewis has said this will be his final acting role, which is precisely the kind of dramatic pronouncement you might expect from his character, Reynolds Woodcock.
Woodcock is a fashion designer in post-war London. His work is coveted, and so is he. The silver fox apparently loves and leaves a series of young muses, with his only longtime companions being his sister Cyril (“my old so-and-so,” in the person of Lesley Manville) and the spirit of his idolized dead mother. We soon meet the latest in his string of ingenue companions: Alma (Vicky Krieps), who’s resolved to make herself less disposable than her predecessors. Firmly resolved.
Before the unexpected developments of the film’s latter half, though, we spend a lot of time with Woodcock at peak Woodcock. His designs are so stunning that they make all of Europe swoon, but being his companion means playing entirely by his rules. No eating too loudly at breakfast, no moving while you’re modeling, and sex is an activity that he exclusively initiates — typically after you stick your neck out in defense of his brilliance.
The women sitting behind me audibly groaned through much of this passage, and so may you. Although the film’s R rating is only for language, Anderson is explicit in his portrayal of an extreme but uncomfortably familiar dynamic. Does Woodcock’s undeniable talent give him permission to exert rude dominance over the women who enter his sphere? In his mind, that’s the equation: love him or leave him. The fact that Woodcock sets those terms atop a mountain of privilege goes unsaid.
In the film’s great bravura scene, we see Woodcock apply his technique of seduction. How does he win young women over? He simply looks at them. Looks and looks and looks, smiling as though he can’t help himself. There’s flirtatious banter (“hungry” is a watchword), a countryside drive in a fast car, an intimate chat by the fireside, and finally the consummation: not copulation, but custom-fitting.
Shooting outside of the U.S. for the first time, Anderson has created a sumptuous film that swaths its prickly characters in layers upon layers of elegance. Jonny Greenwood’s neoclassical score sets a very deliberate tone of constrained passion, and the individual vignettes have a delicate efficiency that matches Woodcock’s seam work.
Consider a moment where Alma, feeling saucy, decides to decant water with more noise than she knows her particular paramour would prefer. She tips the pitcher, then lifts it, and continues lifting until her hand brushes the edge of a low lamp hanging above the table. In Woodcock’s world, that’s an outrageous, even absurd liberty — and it inspires a robust chuckle from the audience, who by this point know that as well as Alma does.
All three central performances require a certain fearlessness, and great authority. The characters must command the respect of one another, and of their audience, in a context that’s often wrenchingly uncomfortable. All are playing types, and all transcend stereotypes.
They pull it off so successfully that the film is bound to inspire diverse reactions. Some will find it painfully insightful, while others will find it simply painful. Some will find it contrived, others will find it appealingly naturalistic. It’s fantastical in a sense, but once you’ve seen it, you’re bound to find yourself seeing it again and again — not in the theater, but in the even more subtly perverted dynamics of everyday life.