While most of the attention on Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread has focused on Daniel Day-Lewis’ apparent retirement afterwards, what’s most amazing is that his final role sees him ceding prominence to a relative newcomer. Day-Lewis is given his most formidable female-co-star in years in Vicky Krieps, who gives as good as she gets in Anderson’s latest examination of creative genius and the mangled relationships it spawns. If this is Day-Lewis’ actual swansong, then the actor goes out on a high note, and Anderson gets back into a groove following the hazy Inherent Vice.
I can only imagine the “method acting” horror stories from the Phantom Thread set, with Day-Lewis perpetually in character as Reynolds Woodcock (the unfortunately-named, since I spent the entire movie imagining the atrocious Billy Bob Thornton comedy Mr. Woodcock), a 1950s British dressmaker and staunch perfectionist. He’s also a bit of an a-hole, but most perfectionists and geniuses are. He may be a “confirmed bachelor” but he indulges in the occasional tryst with beautiful, younger women, and when he grows bored with them he leaves it up to his helicopter sister Cyril (Lesley Manville, never met a grimace she didn’t like) to end things. It’s during a brief sabbatical that he encounters Alma (Krieps), a lovely young waitress, and is immediately infatuated with her. He sweeps the small-town girl from her humble surroundings and lets her into his life, as far into it as he undoubtedly allowed many women, only to push them out when they got too close. The question for Alma is whether she will allow that to happen to her, as well?
There’s an intoxicating romanticism to aspects of Reynolds’ life that clashes with the side best described as poisonous. His is a world of beautiful, shiny, satiny things, and Alma is perfectly suited to it. She becomes his muse, his inspiration, his silent confidante, emphasis on silent. Or perhaps obedient is a better word, because when she starts to make her presence felt, in an effort to not be brushed aside like the women before her, that is when Reynolds actually wishes to do away with her. But it’s not that simple, because Alma is no wilting flower ready to be yanked out of the ground and discarded. Anderson meticulously details the evolving details of their toxic relationship, from the happy “courtship” period to the quiet animosity to the…well, let’s just call the next phase Misery-esque. The ease with which he moves between these raw emotions, bridged by one frigid yet darkly humorous conversation to the next, is extraordinary. But then, communication between his characters has always been one of Anderson’s strengths; one can look at how handily he juggled as a massive array of characters in Magnolia and Boogie Nights for that. That he could take that skill and sharpen it between just three extremely forceful characters shouldn’t be a surprise.
And I say three because Cyril is the most diabolical element. Apparently with no life of her own, Cyril has dedicated everything to Reynolds and his career. Besides being the living specter looming over his household, she takes care of all the menial duties someone of his genius can’t be bothered with. What’s fascinating is how she sees Alma’s arrival, beginning with a sort of bemusement that she’ll be axing another woman from her brother’s life. But then, as Alma starts to flex her muscles and disrupt things, Cyril recognizes that it gives her a different kind of importance, a different kind of strength that will also challenge him. In a way this is the most outwardly feminist movie Anderson has ever done, and there is at least one surprising “cheer” moment afforded to both women. Anderson has often attacked the idea of the power in male masculinity, and in Alma and Cyril he’s got two fierce warriors to aid him.
At different times an absorbing character study of an unknown world ala Boogie Nights, a dysfunctional romance in the vein of Punch-Drunk Love, and a psychological mind f**k like The Master, this is Anderson best bringing together all of his cinematic influences. I think in recent years this has been his greatest struggle, trying to merge all of his sensibilities into one perfect movie. Inherent Vice was the most obvious failed attempt, but he makes up for it here and it’s due in no small part to his trio of stars. Whether he’s brooding, mumbling orders to the help, or engaging in some passive-aggressive power play you can count on Day-Lewis’ intensity to steer the film through occasional rough waters. Having played many brilliant men through his career, Day-Lewis hasn’t nearly as often tackled a role quite like this. Reynolds’ intellect and stylistic acumen is only matched by his emotional immaturity, which cripples any hope he has of ever finding someone to be his equal.
That’s what makes Krieps’ performance as Alma so fascinating, as she rope-a-dopes us into thinking one way about this naïve young woman. Instinctively we look at any character played by Day-Lewis as the one in full control but it’s Alma who evolves most, recognizing all of his shortcomings and improving herself in ways that make her indispensable. The way she does it may be despicable, but they come with a certain self-assuredness that is to be respected. And as for the great Lesley Manville, I’d pay a pretty penny for a collection of all the shade she throws in this movie.
I don’t know if the Alma and Reynolds are meant to be; and I don’t know if that’s even what Anderson wants us to think about with Phantom Thread. In this twisted love story, chaos and dysfunction are the ties that bind, and if that union leads to more beauty in the world then who are we to judge?