I always feel the need to prepare myself, at the very least, for an unfamiliar world before I see a Paul Thomas Anderson movie. That’s a given. As part of that preparation I did some serious research ahead of my recent viewing of Mr. Anderson’s latest film, Phantom Thread. Everyone knows by now this is Daniel Day-Lewis’s last film. Who voted for that? Loosing a huge talent like Mr. Day-Lewis means a seismic shift in the tectonic plates of the universe has been set in motion. It’s like the passing of the torch with no one to pass it to. He is a pure in camera actor. Method. One of a kind.
Mr. Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a celebrity fashion designer and dressmaker in 1950’s London. He tends to the design, construction and fitting of the dresses, as well as CIO, chief idiosyncratic officer. His sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) takes care of the business end of things as well as manages, controls actually, Woodcock’s life. Reynolds is easily distracted and cannot have his schedule disrupted even in the slightest way. If it is upset, or “ambushed” as he puts it, his concentration breaks for the entire day.
In the first reel we see him at breakfast with Cyril and his current muse who has apparently run out of the juice she used to have to propel Reynolds onto the next design. This prompts Cyril to send her packing. Sister suggests Reynolds take a weekend getaway to the country to clear his head. Capital idea.
They have a country home in addition to their posh London residence where Reynolds can go to collect his thoughts and in this case perhaps mourn the loss of yet another young muse.
At a local breakfast place the next day he is instantly charmed by Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps), a young fair-skinned, red-haired waitress who is introduced to us via a clumsy stumble. She takes his breakfast order which is large enough to feed a team of carpenters. Welsh rabbit with an egg on top, but not too runny. Scones, bacon, sausages and lapsang tea, etc. Reynolds has a big appetite when happy. He asks her to dinner and the muse grooming begins.
Mr. Anderson sets-up a frame story that he returns to throughout the film. It’s Alma sitting by a fire in a drawing room of some sort and telling a man the story of her and Reynolds. I think this is a terrific device and it helps us in the long run to sort out the three acts.
At dinner Reynolds tells Alma about how he sews secrets into the garments he makes. Notes, coins, even locks of hair. Fabric is his canvas and his paintings (dresses) are worn by his clientele.
He takes Alma back to his country home and describes his love for his mother, who taught him his trade. Reynolds made his mother’s wedding dress when she remarried following the death of his father. He had to do it all by himself. His nanny wouldn’t dare help him. It was thought that if you assisted in the making of someone else’s wedding dress you would be cursed and would never marry. That curse could be cast even if all you did was touch the dress. A beautifully tailored dress has immense power.
Mr. Anderson introduces us to the sorrow in Reynold’s life early on. His sadness is potentially inescapable and only expands as the arc of the story unfolds and we see Reynolds devolve into child-like state. Eventually sadness emerges as one of the most important elements in the story.
He wants to make Alma a dress and begins taking measurements. He asks Alama to lift her arm or look up as he lays the tape across her body; but they are really instructions. She willingly follows. Has she become a mannequin? Cyril arrives to check out the new muse candidate. Reynolds calls out the numbers to Cyril who records them in a ledger.
Cyril tells Alma she is a perfect physical specimen. Her digits combined with the girlish charm that has enchanted Reynolds seals the deal.
In no time at all Alma is back at their Georgian apartment in London and is seamlessly assimilated into the House of Woodcock.
Each season takes more and more out of Reynolds as he labors to complete his spring or fall line. In his desire to create the one of a kind wedding dress for a Countess he has been dressing her entire life, he hits a brick wall over breakfast. Everything revolves around breakfast in the house. Alma suddenly grates on his nerves as she butters her bread and pours the morning tea. Cyril suggests that perhaps it’s time for Alma to depart, but Alma is smarter than the average muse, at least the ones these two have dealt with.
This is where the story turns toward psychological thriller. We see Hitchcock influences enter the film’s design as the three of them battle for control, but each in very different ways.
Reynolds becomes ill and is forced to curl-up in his bed unable to do anything and unwilling to see a doctor. Alma seizes this moment for herself. She alone can take care of Reynold’s needs and eventually he welcomes it. The power of control shifts to Alma. Cyril is furious that her control levers no longer function as efficiently. But the business must continue. Dresses must be made and fittings completed.
Once Reynolds recovers he asks Alma to marry him.
The House of Woodcock is all Cyril has. Everyone seems to have only one thing and are terrified that it will be taken away. She encouraged Reynolds to find new muses to inspire him, and showed them the door when there abilities ran out. But Alma is different. She wedges herself in-between brother and sister, gives herself a promotion from muse to wife and becomes an unexpected threat to Cyril.
Mr. Anderson served as his own director of photography, a first for him. The result is a lush look to the picture filled with jewel tones, purples, brilliant oranges, reds, royal navy, yellow and green. It feels like a 1950’s picture with its inevitable trajectory racing toward intrigue and tightly packed with lots of delicious details.
Whenever we see Reynolds driving he is speeding recklessly from place to place as if fearful of being caught outside the safe zones of his apartment, country house or favorite brasserie.
We glimpse almost no life for Reynolds outside his studio. No newspapers or television. The only time we see him listen to the wireless was on New Year’s eve. Perhaps he was making a desperate attempt to connect with a world that Alma knew and didn’t want to give up.
When we do get outside, the daylight is usually overcast and gray. The narrow house and winding stairway represents his vessel of creativity. His personal currency is routine and it makes him its slave. He knows steady flow is absolutely required for him to work. If that flow would ever be interrupted, all will dissolve. In the end Reynolds and Alma settle on a symbiotic relationship that I believe few will see coming.
Jonny Greenwood’s score is everywhere in this film. It fills the scenes but doesn’t overpower. I prefer scores that know when to be silent. In Phantom Thread the music really doesn’t give us much of a break, but it didn’t bother me. I could still feel the acting.
I wonder what the Academy will do with this picture in the current climate we find ourselves in. I loved this picture and all of the performances. Mr. Day-Lewis of course. Vicky Kreips plays Alma beautifully. She balances naiveté with a slyness and holds her own in her scenes with DDL. Lesley Manville’s Cyril made my blood run cold several times with her steely eyes and strong comebacks. Highly recommended.
Side note. Between Reynolds, Cyril and Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep’s character in Steven Spielberg’s The Post) you will witness a master class on how to hold horn-rimmed glasses.
Listen to Jonny Greenwood’s score on Spotify. Track 13 (of course) “House of Woodcock” is the piano love theme.
My Podcast of this review on Soundcloud here