The haunted artist portrayed by
in “Phantom Thread” creates dresses for wealthy women. In the process, he makes dressing, rather than undressing, an erotic ritual.
is the reigning high-fashion designer in 1950s London, and
Paul Thomas Anderson’s
hypnotically beautiful film revels in the workings of the House of Woodcock, the fabled realm where Reynolds holds sway over a devoted staff of artisans and seamstresses. (
smoulders fiercely as his sister, Cyril, who oversees the business and his role in it.) Yet the story focuses most powerfully on the great man at home, where his rigidly structured life is under dire threat of transformation by love.
The last time Mr. Anderson worked at the peak of his powers was a decade ago, when he did “There Will Be Blood,” which starred Mr. Day-Lewis as a monstrously coldhearted oil tycoon. (The actor claims his latest appearance will be his last; say it ain’t so, Daniel.) This is a new pinnacle, not icy but inviting, and a new departure, a romance that feels different from anything the filmmaker has done before. The rhythms are unhurried, the drama pinpoint-intense, the style intimate, the wit Hitchcock-perverse. And the look of it is gorgeously lush, with shadows out of Douglas Sirk. (There is no cinematography credit, which suggests that Mr. Anderson shot the film himself, with technical assistance;
is listed as lighting cameraman.)
All’s right with Reynolds’s hermetic world when the movie begins, or almost all; tension at breakfast with a beautiful woman in his life threatens to build until he says, with a calmness devoid of feeling, “I cannot begin my day with a confrontation.” That’s it, she’s out of his life, Reynolds is ready to meet his first client of the day and an orchestra sneaks in the strains of “My Foolish Heart.” (Jonny Greenwood’s score is eclectic and exquisite.) But where in his shrink-wrapped heart could foolishness ever gain a foothold? A subsequent breakfast encounter, at a hotel restaurant near his country house, tells that part of the tale, and illuminates Mr. Anderson’s technique.
At its simplest, breakfast scene No. 2 is about Reynolds being smitten by a charming waitress. (Her name is Alma, she’s played by
and charming doesn’t begin to describe the rich complexity of the performance.) Another filmmaker might have staged the scene briskly, as a flirtation leading to some sexier destination. In Mr. Anderson’s hands it’s a highly charged meeting of gazes, minds and motives, the beginning of an obsessive love affair with more layers than a mille-feuille. And, what do you know, it’s also about ordering breakfast—a welsh rarebit with a poached egg on top, not too runny, plus a list of other goodies that Reynolds requests with amusing gravity and Alma recognizes as a litany of seduction.
Later on, after she has become his model and muse, we’re treated to scenes about asparagus and mushrooms that are really about, among many other things, asparagus and mushrooms. But this is not a film for foodies, any more than it’s a documentary about haute couture—although it evokes, in fascinating detail, such designers of the period as Balenciaga and Hardy Amies. (The elegant costumes in the film were designed by
) Every scene between Reynolds and Alma is a study in how they seduce each other, annoy and delight each other, make war and peace with each other, and seek ways, however bizarre, to keep their love alive.
The intensity of these scenes is so extraordinary that I kept wondering how they did it—not just Mr. Day-Lewis, the most intense actor of our time, but Ms. Krieps, an actress from Luxembourg in her first major English-language role, and Mr. Anderson himself, the mesmerist behind the mesmerizing images. What came to mind was something I overheard a long time ago when I was watching
the Olympic heptathlon champion, train at UCLA’s Drake Stadium. She was off her pace in the 200-meter dash and struggling to run faster. “Don’t try to be fast,” her husband and coach,
called to her. “Do the things that make you fast.” Intensity doesn’t come from a filmmaker or an actor trying to be intense. It’s the consequence of visual and emotional focus—the camera’s unwavering concentration on Alma’s facial expressions, Reynolds ordering his rarebit as if it, and the egg atop it, mattered more than anything else in the universe.
As the tightly focused center of Alma’s—and Mr. Anderson’s—attention, Reynolds is closed off to spontaneous feelings until he isn’t, or at least until he is less so; one could say that everything before Alma was a near-life experience. But why is Reynolds haunted? That’s the key to the phantom component of the story. It’s also the window through which we come to see larger dimensions of the film, which is set in the middle of the 20th century but speaks eloquently to contemporary concerns about women being the objects, rather than the apples, of men’s eyes. “I’ve been looking for you for a very long time,” Reynolds tells Alma early in their romance. The question is whether he’s enchanted by what he sees in her, or on her.
Write to Joe Morgenstern at email@example.com
Appeared in the December 20, 2017, print edition as ‘Of Rags and Dramatic Riches Phantom.’