The play of power in Phantom Thread from director Paul Thomas Anderson seems predictable at the outset. Within the first half an hour of the movie, we see young beautiful women manipulated by Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a renown, fidgety fashion designer with a towering reputation and an extremely fragile temperament. He dismisses his lover out of hand over the course of breakfast, effectively ending what is implied to be a long-term and wavering relationship. We understand that this same scene at the breakfast table has played out before, in Woodcock’s elegant townhouse-with-studio. Woodcock takes up with a young woman, a muse, and then, with his practical, steadfast sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) at his side, casually discards her when she demands more emotional attention than she provides artistic inspiration. Soon after this separation,
Woodcock flees for the country for his state of mind: there, over breakfast, he flirts with and asks his waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps), to have dinner with him. In an exceptionally terrible date, he has her strip down for measurements on a dress. Halfway through the measurements, Cyril wanders in. No one, including a bewildered Alma, dares treat it as unusual. A strangled politeness prevails. Alma is dazed and star struck, and appears, as our POV character, to be fresh cog in the mill of Woodcock’s dehumanizing muse rotation. Power is in the hands of the artist as he carefully dissects the much-younger woman’s body in measurements, which Cyril silently records.
But the movie doesn’t bend that simply. Alma becomes, instead of a victim, a fascinating character who exercises her own brand of power. When she sees Woodcock’s attention slipping away, she is ruthless and keen and entirely unexpected in her response, turning the movie from a story of a muse manipulated to a story about the balance of power in a relationship fueled by relentless adoration.
Among the most refreshing aspects of the movie is the ease with which it could slip into tired romance narratives and how resolutely it avoids them. The tense, racing car drives the couple takes together in silence read, not as the Hitchcockian trope scene of a budding romance (see Rebecca), but as the tension of the movie winding tighter and tighter. The grandeur of Woodcock’s world and Alma’s powerful desire to claim her place in it lend the dialogue between Krieps and Day-Lewis’s characters a captivating intensity.
Whatever memes go around the internet about Day-Lewis’s method acting, this is a movie where the audience can feel the immersion happening. Woodcock’s house, for instance, occupies a huge amount of screen time, and with the long takes tracing out the dizzying space, its spiraling staircases, and its white-clad seamstresses, the space houses all the claustrophobic tensions and elegant beauty of the movie in the form of a well-handled setting. In a conversation with the Guardian, the cast reflected on the immersive aspects of filming: they stayed in that townhouse for the extent of the time they were filming there, and it shows in the actors’ movement in the space. Apparently going back outside again was a bit jarring. Day-Lewis and Krieps didn’t meet at all before filming began, per his request. The scene where Alma and Woodcock meet is, in fact, the actors’ first meeting. Krieps’s anxious stumble and fierce blush are both entirely unplanned and genuine.
If you drained all the healthy trust from Professor Marston and the Wonder Women and cranked the art direction up ten notches, you might end up with the uneasy, fascinating balance of Phantom Thread. It isn’t a progressive movie or a movie with a historically-thrilling insight or message, as Oscar movies are wont to be. Instead it’s quite simply an extremely well-made movie crafted with care, passion, and startling turns.