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Nothing Is Quite As It Seems in ‘Phantom Thread’

Paul Thomas Anderson’s sumptuous chamber drama studies the shifts in power among an obsessive dressmaker, his sister, and his love interest. Most of all, it is another indelible performance by Daniel Day-Lewis.

Focus Features/Ringer illustration

“You have no breasts,” says Reynolds Woodcock, high-class couturier.

“Yes,” says Alma. “I know. Sorry.” (This is their first date.)

“No, no,” says Woodcock, taking her measurements. “You’re perfect.” He sizes her up, adjusts her posture, chooses a fabric he thinks should work. “It’s my job to give you some — if I choose to.”

It’d be too easy to say that Woodcock, a 1950s dressmaker in London and the central character of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, treats the body like a blank canvas. And it’d be equally oversimple to reduce his interactions with Alma to the familiar perils of the control-freak artist — not least because Alma, we and Woodcock quickly learn, has ideas of her own and is unafraid to express them. There’s nothing blank about this canvas. Alma (Vicky Krieps), whom Woodcock first meets in the small countryside restaurant where she works, is full of substance — just like the other women Woodcock dresses for a living. You sense that if she weren’t, she wouldn’t be here.

Nothing is quite as it seems in Phantom Thread, beyond the obvious: As a movie set in the world of fashion, it more or less has a responsibility to look beautiful. And Anderson, who had to forgo his usual cinematographers and instead worked with his regular team of cameramen, grip, and gaffer to be his own director of photography, floods the movie with light and movement from its opening scenes. That Phantom Thread would prove sumptuous, and that its costume designer, Mark Bridges, would prove to be one of its handful of MVPs, was to be expected.

The rest is a little bit of a shock. In a way, Phantom Thread is like another of this year’s dirtbag-artist movies, Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, a film that goes out of its way to give male poets a bad name. Phantom Thread’s Woodcock has a contentious streak in him, too, an easily wounded pride to match his devilish talent and charm. But even that comparison fails to describe just how slippery Anderson’s movie is. Woodcock, played with a meticulous air of control by Daniel Day-Lewis, certainly sees the bodies of his customers, all of them women, as an opportunity to display his own art, to say nothing of the care he takes in his own body, which he keeps handsomely maintained: shoes polished, nose hairs ceremoniously clipped, suits impeccably tailored. But the substance of Woodcock’s art isn’t outright invention. It’s transformation. Each dress he makes is a mix of his own taste and personal history blended with those of his customer. The most important ingredient of them all is what the woman desires, which is of course — given that she’s come to the house of Woodcock — to look beautiful. “In his work,” says Alma, narrating to us from a not-distant future, “I become perfect.” And through his work, as embodied by her, Woodcock becomes perfect, too.

Not only does Alma survive that strange first date: She moves in. And for a while the movie becomes the Pygmalion tale you probably expect, the waitress becoming the unlikely muse for an over-the-top, controlling artist (and she’s hardly the first). But in a few key ways, Anderson, who wrote the script in collaboration with Day-Lewis, pushes the movie in directions that undercut our expectations. For one, there’s Woodcock’s sister, Cyril (the fabulous Lesley Manville), who more or less runs their business (down to dumping his live-in girlfriends/muses when the time comes) and holding the reins of his ego with more certainty than even he probably knows. You know what’s up early on when Manville, greeting another fresh day at work, looks straight into the camera and smirks. There’s all the other women, too, old and young, who fill the house of Woodcock day in and out with the sounds of their dressmaking and housekeeping, and the coming and going of rich clients who, as Cyril reminds her brother, “pay for this house.” Most of all, there’s Woodcock’s long-dead mother, whom the designer keeps close to his heart — literally. There’s a locket of her hair sewn into the lining of the blazer he wears on his first date with Alma. She hovers through his life, he says, watching over it all.

Into all of this arrives Alma, who spends a lot of the movie trying to love and understand Woodcock in her own way, on her own terms. That’s just not how Woodcock works — and the tension there is the central drama of Anderson’s movie. It’s strange territory for Anderson, in part because he hasn’t made an outright romance since Punch-Drunk Love, but mostly because it feels small, especially on the heels of Anderson’s trio of sprawling epics (There Will Be Blood, The Master, and Inherent Vice). For all of the many bodies onscreen in Phantom Thread, this is a chamber drama, a study of the shifts in power among Reynolds, Cyril, and Alma, the latter of whom surprises us all in the ways she learns to assert herself over the course of the movie. It’s delicious to watch it all play out, with those pointed reaction shots from Krieps and Manville, who wear so much of the movie’s psychological tension on their faces, anchoring us in the slippery emotional textures of the movie.

Reynolds, meanwhile, is a man lost in his own patterns of behavior. He’s an artist who lives by a strict code of habits. There can’t be too much noise at breakfast, or his day will be ruined. And don’t bother trying to get laid at midnight: He’s working. Alma, who has her own wants, is a disruption — and then she adjusts. You wonder how that happens, and why. It’s not always so apparent from the script, but the Luxembourger Krieps delivers the kind of witty, alert performance, fully aware of all the trappings of the ingenue and eager to avoid them, that makes me deeply curious as to who Alma is. The masterful Manville, whose character is much the same in terms of inner mysteries, is equally wonderful here. When she starts a reprimand with “Let me be unambiguous,” you immediately prepare for your own feelings to get hurt.

And then, of course, there’s Daniel Day-Lewis, one of Anderson’s most brilliant collaborators. You know when DDL gets cast in a movie that the character is going to be, at minimum, A Bit Much. His role in Phantom Thread is no exception. But he doesn’t storm or verbally joust his way through this film the way he did, say, Spielberg’s Lincoln, or Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, or, of course, Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. However, those three examples echo one of Day-Lewis’s finest qualities in Phantom Thread. It’s a film set in the ’50s, but there’s something frighteningly old-world about this actor. No matter when and where you set his characters, the man is going to dredge up the spirit of the 19th century. Reynolds Woodcock — down to his name, which sounds like a Dickensian curse — is old-fashioned by even his own era’s standards, which is part of the beauty of his work: His is the art of tapping into what, for his customers, feels like timeless beauty. If they don’t have it, he supplies it. This is a performance that makes you believe he really can.

Day-Lewis, who, per his usual Method preparation, studied dressmaking so that the gestures and habits of the profession would come easily, moves with the grace and purpose of a trained dancer. Early on, when he’s taking Alma’s measurements, Anderson homes in on the actor’s hands, which are just as prominent and important to each shot as the view of the measurements themselves. There’s another moment of him standing in a doorway, waiting for Alma to retrieve one of his dresses from a misbehaving client, that stands out as much as anything any other actor did this entire year in movies. All he does is stand there, waiting, hip cocked and arm over the door jamb, and yet he seems to be able to tell us everything we need to know about who this man is. If this is really Day-Lewis’s last performance, as he insists it is, it’s quite a way to go out. It gathers the vast constellation of his charms and talents, bottles them up, and serves them in one scrumptious slice of movie.

As asshole artist-characters go, Reynolds is credible, and Day-Lewis is more than credible in the part. But the movie is too sly, too smart, to let Day-Lewis or the man he plays have their run of the joint. The movie, which Anderson fashions into an old-school gothic love story (comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal Rebecca are justified), keeps slipping beneath our feet, landing, finally, in a place I’m not sure anyone could have seen coming. I’ll admit, it took me multiple tries to feel like the ending worked, which wouldn’t be the first time I’ve walked out of a Paul Thomas Anderson movie wondering if the magisterial work of the first three quarters of the movie had been slightly undone by a strange turn in the last 30 minutes. Sometimes, of late, it seems like Anderson is barreling along toward one set of vast, far-flung conclusions only to settle somewhere more familiar. Not so Phantom Thread, which understands its characters better, from the start, than it lets on, and manages to be a movie about them, first and foremost, without all the baggage of history and industry that define the director’s recent features. It’s a movie about a rapid change of pace for the artist at its center, and, in its finest moments, that shift feels just as true of its maker.