Paul Thomas Anderson returns to form, after a fashion

Film |  by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Phantom Thread
Opens Friday 9
3 out of 5

After the practically unintelligible Inherent Vice (which prompted me to start divorce proceedings against Paul Thomas Anderson’s work), Phantom Thread comes as a relief. There is a story worth following, and across-the-board superb acting. But the hermetic qualities that have characterized PTA’s work since Punch Drunk Love are still there, heightening the divide between him and the general public.

Ostensibly inspired by Hitchcock’s Rebecca, Phantom Thread dissects the relationship between couturier Reynolds Woodcock (allegedly retiring actor Daniel Day-Lewis, in presumably his final screen appearance) and Alma (Vicky Krieps, Hanna), a simple woman stuck at a dead-end job… or so it seems. Very much at the top of his fashion game, Woodcock feels entitled to behave obnoxiously. He dismisses a lover because she makes too much noise buttering her toast (granted, it is kind of annoying).

Woodcock seduces Alma and turns her into his muse. But as soon as Alma moves into his residence, the dynamic changes. The dressmaker attempts to pull his fastidious routine, but faces resistance. Far from the wallflower he first imagined, Alma turns out to be feisty and very much her own woman.

For the rest of the movie we witness the twosome struggle to establish a workable balance in their relationship without giving up an inch. Alma becomes a convert to the church of Woodcock, and he’s pushed outside his comfort zone in unexpected ways.

Much like The Master and There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson’s approach is meticulous and somewhat sterile. Far from merely a cosmetic element, costume design is intoxicatingly and deeply ingrained into the texture of the film (of course, Day-Lewis learned to make dresses before taking the role).

Praising Day-Lewis for his work is akin to throwing a pebble into the ocean. Regardless, the three-time Oscar winner is in great form here. A much more contained performance than, say, Gangs of New York, the actor fully inhabits the Woodcock role down to the velvety voice — which makes ordering breakfast an act of seduction. A recognizable kind of genius, Woodcock is easily exasperated, prone to bouts of depression, and believes his craft is his only purpose in life. This is the mountain Alma must conquer.

Day-Lewis’ best sparring partner on screen is not Vicky Krieps, but Leslie Manville as Woodcock’s sister, Cyril. A Mrs. Danvers-type, Cyril runs the house and the business, presumably at the expense of her personal life. Then again, PTA uses our knowledge of her “type” to subvert our expectations. I could have used more of Cyril and less of Reynolds blowing a fuse.

Because every ingredient in Phantom Thread has received painstaking consideration — the score, the period signposts, the dialogue — this is the kind of movie that benefits from a second viewing, particularly once you become aware of certain plot developments (four words: The Duke of Burgundy). I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Godspeed if you are up for it.