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Phantom Thread Is Too Good to Keep a Secret

Paul Thomas Anderson’s new movie, featuring the performance that Daniel Day-Lewis says will be his last, is a marvel of craft too beautiful to miss and too delicate to spoil.

Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread.
Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread. Laurie Sparham/Focus Features

The friend with whom I saw Phantom Thread for the first time admitted on the way to dinner afterward: “I sort of don’t want to let anyone else see it.” Something about Paul Thomas Anderson’s eighth movie encourages this sense of secrecy, the thrill of a shared mystery. It was that enigmatic aura that sent me back to rewatch Phantom Thread a few weeks later on my own to see if it would cast the same spell (it did) and to help me figure out how it was put together. This devilishly funny and luxuriantly sensuous film is so successful as entertainment that it’s hard to stop and notice the extreme degree of craft that went into its construction. To use what will be the first of several unfortunate but necessary textile metaphors, Anderson—who also wrote the script and did his own 35mm cinematography—hides his aesthetic seams such that the visual, auditory, intellectual, and emotional experiences of seeing Phantom Thread come together into an irreducible and deeply satisfying whole.

A key moment in this twisted love story between a venerated London couturier and his rebellious would-be muse involves a message embroidered into a scrap of fabric to be hidden in a dress’ hem, a secret to be kept even from the wearer. This movie is to its audience something like what that garment is to its prospective owner: It knows something we don’t, contains mysteries it may be withholding even from us. I enjoyed Phantom Thread’s sense of discretion, which is why I don’t want to rip a hole in its delicate fabric (no more than three of these total, I promise) by trying too hard to explain it. I hope to tell the reader just enough to send her to the theater, preferably with a clothes-appreciating friend, so they can find their own words to discuss it on the way home.

All you need to know that the splendidly named designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis, who came up with the character’s name in a text-message exchange with the director) runs the top-flight couture house that bears his name with eccentric, not to say obsessive, rigor.
Visionary, exacting, and comically predictable in his habits, Woodcock demands the same level of commitment—plus a great deal more flexibility—from everyone around him. In the aftermath of a big project, designing a seasonal collection or creating a bridal gown for a European princess, he becomes a nervous wreck and collapses into a state of bedridden helplessness for days.

The House of Woodcock is also an actual house: a narrow London townhouse where Reynolds lives and works with his sister Cyril (the extraordinary Lesley Manville), aided by a nun-like brigade of near-silent seamstresses clad in pristine white. Cyril, who like Reynolds has never married, runs the family business with a cool efficiency that both enables and defends against her brother’s temperamental excesses. When a fan of his designs gushes to him that she’d like to be buried in one of his dresses, Reynolds thanks the young woman with consummate grace, then lets her get just out of earshot before turning to his sister and murmuring affectionately, “You’d dig her up and take back the dress.”

One of Cyril’s many recurring tasks is to mediate, when necessary, between her hypersensitive brother and his live-in female companions, who, as an early scene makes clear, rotate in and out of the House of Woodcock with some frequency. Reynolds likes things in his daily life just so—noisy toast-buttering at breakfast is a major panic trigger—and when each new paramour, inevitably, begins taking up more space for herself than the resident artist expects or permits of his muses, it’s Cyril who takes the young woman aside and tells her that her services as dress model, design inspiration, and occasional domestic partner are no longer needed.

But the Woodcocks may have met their match in Alma (Vicky Krieps), a young woman of unstated Northern European origin (in real life, Krieps is from Luxembourg) who meets Reynolds while serving him breakfast at a small inn near his rustic country getaway. (The real estate and general domestic ambience in Phantom Thread is low-key astounding, though the locations still serve as muted backdrops for the resplendent glory of the clothes.) Alma’s radiant beauty and air of calm self-possession attract the designer’s notice, and by the end of the first day they meet he’s already taken her measurements for a custom dress and confided in her his most-treasured memories of his adored late mother, who was also his first sewing mentor. Next time we see her, Alma has taken up residence in the House of Woodcock, where she awkwardly attempts—and at times defiantly refuses—to adhere to the siblings’ many unspoken rules and impossible expectations.

All this takes place in the first 20 minutes of Phantom Thread’s 130.
I’ll leave it to you to accompany the development of Reynolds’, Alma’s, and Cyril’s peculiar three-way bond, with its constantly shifting balance between need and resentment, desire and jealousy, hate and love. And Anderson himself, in control as he’s ever been of his craft, is more than capable of deepening the perspective to show you how the story of this vicious-yet-intermittently-functioning love triangle is also a fairy tale–like parable about marriage, art, and even the conflict between fate and free will, the choices that are ours to make and those that are out of our hands. These larger themes aren’t trotted out as proof of artistic heft; they’re implicit in the stunningly framed but never static images, the ever-shifting palette of rich jewel colors, and the gradually emerging leitmotifs of Jonny Greenwood’s all-enveloping orchestral soundtrack.

What I most want to leave you with is an exhortation to see Phantom Thread in the theater, the best place to submit to its spell-like enchantment. The fact that this film itself is a physical object—a length of 35mm celluloid produced with meticulous attention to detail—is not immaterial to the story it tells about a maniacal craftsman’s impossible pursuit of beauty. Like Anderson’s work with old-school film stock, Woodcock’s deep creative engagement with the possibilities of silk, velvet, lace, and muslin is a commitment to practicing a form of craftsmanship that’s fast disappearing from the digital world. The costumes by Mark Bridges, who’s worked with Anderson on every one of his films, aren’t just lovely-to-look-at period finery that evoke the lines of classic midcentury designers like Charles James and Cristóbal Balenciaga, on whom Day-Lewis’ character is very loosely based. These elegantly structured gowns express the idiosyncratic sensibility of their fictional creator: nostalgic yet daringly modern, sensual yet modest, romantic yet curiously remote.

Another form of craftsmanship that’s disappearing from the world, if we’re to take Daniel Day-Lewis at his word, is that actor’s utterly irreplaceable presence on our movie screens. After shooting for Phantom Thread wrapped earlier this year, he announced it would be his last film before retiring from acting for good. True, the 60-year-old Day-Lewis has taken planned breaks from the screen before, like the period of years in the late ’90s and early 2000s when he devoted himself to apprenticing in old-fashioned makers’ trades not unlike the one his latest character plies. Day-Lewis’ acting practice seems exhaustingly immersive—as a young man, he famously collapsed backstage during a performance of Hamlet, overcome with grief for his own deceased father—and it’s easy to understand why he would be ready to retreat to private life after 30-plus years spent traversing such arduous emotional terrain. But the knowledge that this may be the last time we see him act layers itself over every minute of this already multilayered performance, investing an already melancholic character with even deeper sadness. Day-Lewis’ Reynolds Woodcock is both lovable and throttleable, urbanely charming one minute and maddeningly self-absorbed the next. Krieps’ Alma, an iron-willed trickster with no interest in playing anyone’s disposable love object, proves herself every bit his match as their back-and-forth power struggle moves toward a denouement that’s part dark psychological thriller, part wry erotic comedy.

In the end I can’t fulfill my friend’s wish to keep Phantom Thread our secret, because my job as a critic is to spread wide the glad tidings of a beautiful new movie in our midst. But I pass on the secret in the spirit of keeping it: Go experience Phantom Thread for yourself, or in the company of your most textile-mad friend, and give yourselves up to its seductions and dangers without asking, at least at first, that this mysteriously self-contained work of art give itself over entirely to you.

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