It’s probably necessary to see “Phantom Thread” more than once to fully savor the tang of its malice, erotic attraction and excruciating good taste. The offering from writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson is a languid, perversely funny story of psychosexual desire in the high-fashion world of 1950s London. It is almost excessively elegant, presented with the high-toned dialogue, orchestral score, cinematography, editing and rich set design of a bygone prestige picture. But did the studios of that golden age ever make gothic, glacial romantic comedies?
Like Anderson’s earlier films “Magnolia,” “There Will Be Blood” and “The Master,” his latest is confounding but worth the effort. He is more concerned with creating tone and mood than instant clarity; he trusts that we are smart enough to solve his puzzles. “Phantom Thread” is lavish, vibrant and about nothing and everything all at once.
It might seem all too precious for words were it not for the ever-changing dynamic between the leading actors. Daniel Day-Lewis plays elite couturier Reynolds Woodcock, a fastidious perfectionist without a trace of work/life balance. Introspective and melancholy, he takes nubile young women as his temporary lovers and muses, while maintaining longer relationships with the heiresses, debutantes and female royals who are his key clients. His paramours tend to be dismissed over confrontations at breakfast, when he cannot stand “too much noise” — in other words, “anything over a whisper.” The dire slope of his eyebrows at the sound of dry toast being buttered, tea being poured or a clumsy spoon tap-tap-tapping in a cup is enough to provoke visceral agonies in the audience.
Lesley Manville is his imposing sister and business manager Cyril, strictly handling the world around him so Reynolds is never distracted from creating his art. Their carefully controlled partnership is thrown for several loops when he sees Alma (Vicky Krieps), a comely young waitress, and his eyes begin to smile. He woos her to become his newest inspiration and lover, a serving position she increasingly resists as their relationship grows.
In what might be Day-Lewis’ final film — he has announced that he’s retiring, but he’s taken sabbaticals before and many observers question whether he can completely walk away — he again proves himself a chameleon of superhuman skill. His Reynolds is the portrait of a poetic soul looking for love of an odd sort, a bizarre, playful human connection that we gradually come to see but may find difficult to categorize. Day-Lewis makes it all feel eccentric yet normal and realistic. As his firm sister and entirely unpredictable lover, Manville and Krieps play in the same league. At times you forget that you’re watching a film with actors playing parts.
The trio’s intertwined relationships are built on a narrow patch of ground between trust and distrust, and they perform in ways that are stone-cold perfect. Anderson and Day-Lewis handle Reynolds like an onion to be peeled, gradually revealing the spoiled and needy child inside the great man. Cyril gives him maternal protection, while Alma learns how haunted he is by the spirit of his late mother and offers him the loving embrace he craves. And of course, each sees the other as a threatening rival.
The cast keeps every frame practically dripping with unrestrained sensuality, power struggles, familial bonds and romantic tension. And then a mysterious spirit shows up, and just when we think we have a handle on everything, an entire third act begins to unfold that sidelines all our assumptions and sends the whole enterprise aloft to conclude on a cloud of weird good cheer.
Anderson handles the film like classic Hitchcock, making us wonder and worry over which character will win the upper hand and how the House of Woodcock will emerge. Because the story is bracketed by images of Alma telling the story of her years with Reynolds beside a fireplace, are we to assume that he has already passed on? Wait and see. And then maybe see it again.