“Phantom Thread,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s beautifully shot, painfully long story of an uptight genius and the women who love him, is a curious piece of work that manages to be totally surprising yet very unsatisfying at the same time. Even when the plot takes a truly unexpected turn, there is no emotional payoff, and while there is much to admire, there is little to enjoy.
Daniel Day-Lewis, that celebrated master of disguise, plays a far less showy role in this film, that of Reynolds Woodcock, a British artist profoundly devoted to his craft, much like Day-Lewis himself. A celebrated and successful clothing designer, Woodcock requires total control over his established daily routines, and those that orbit around him comply, presumably because of his genius.
His business partner and de facto life partner is his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), who seems to work under him but is every bit as formidable as he is. Theirs is a very powerful and unusual bond, with a current of menace. It is Cyril who makes sure Reynolds’ life runs in a manner that allows him to do his lauded work. It is Cyril who sends Reynolds’ girlfriends packing when he no longer has use for them. All this is very interesting. There’s much in the film that’s very interesting. It was interesting — that’s the best, and the worst, thing you can say about it.
Anderson wrote, directed and shot the film himself, and the cinematography is masterful. He moves over the banisters of Woodcock’s London home and showroom, and through the seams of his garments, beautifully. The story is masterfully composed and convincingly portrayed, and the quiet solemnity of the mood makes the more perverse elements that much more disquieting.
After Cyril summarily dismisses one girlfriend, Reynolds quickly finds another, Alma (Vicky Krieps), a seemingly soft-spoken and pliant waitress who ascends to the role of lover and muse and gets to move into the Woodcock abode and atelier in London. She may be soft-spoken, but her determination to love and be loved by him is clear. What’s not clear is why. Why would anyone want a life with such a person?
You won’t be rooting for anyone in “Phantom Thread.” It’s not that kind of story. At one point, Alma states, “I must love him in my own way,” trying to convince Cyril of nothing more revolutionary than leaving the house so she and Reynolds can together eat a dinner she prepared. It is, however, a revolution in the face of this vexingly immobile man, and this failed coup leads to something far stranger and more effective.
This is a perfectly executed presentation of a deeply strange relationship with a power triangle, rather than a love triangle. Actually, as I’m describing it, I’m sort of talking myself into liking it, but the experience of viewing it felt so unessential.
Given the credentials behind “Phantom Thread,” you really feel like you need to see it; it’s supposedly Day-Lewis’ final film. It’s ravishing but unmoving, full of details but lacking in vitality, fascinating in a removed way but not engrossing. If it is possible to be impressed but bored at the same time, that is the experience “Phantom Thread” creates.
“Phantom Thread” is currently available to rent.