Film Review: ‘Phantom Thread’

In Paul Thomas Anderson's coldly seductive fable of toxic masculinity, Daniel Day-Lewis goes out with high showmanship (but not, perhaps, a home run) as a '50s British fashion designer who tries to control love.

'Phantom Thread' Review: Day-Lewis in a Tale of Toxic Masculinity

Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), the svelte and smoldering middle-aged British fashion designer at the heart of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread,” is a man who seems to have everything he wants. He lives in a splendid five-story London townhouse with walls the color of cream, and he works there too, starting early, sitting with his tea and pastries as he does the day’s sketches, already possessed by his reverent labor. He’s a dressmaker who works with the fervor of an artist — dreaming, obsessing, perfecting. At night he sips martinis at parties and restaurants, rubbing shoulders with the countesses and wealthy London ladies who are his clients, and he’s also a devoted serial womanizer who falls for — and discards — one comely model muse after another. (As the film opens, his current flame is flickering out.) “Phantom Thread” is set in 1955, but Reynolds, in his posh and pampered upper-crust way, has the air of a highly contempo bachelor hedonist. The world is his oyster, and it’s also his man-cave.

One weekend, he drives his sporty maroon roadster — at top speed, of course — out to his country getaway, arriving at dawn and ordering breakfast in the restaurant of a seaside hotel. The young woman who waits on him, Alma (Vickey Krieps), has a melting warm smile, come-hither eyes locked in a glow of adoration, and a mild accent. (It’s never specified where she’s from, but the 34-year-old actress Vicky Krieps hails from Luxembourg.) As soon as she takes his order for Welsh rarebit with a poached egg on top, a pot of lapsang tea, jam (not strawberry!), and an order of sausages, she can tell that this is a man whose appetite for life matches her own.

Daniel Day-Lewis has spent enough time behind the façade of concocted voices and elaborate hair that it’s always a bit of an ironic shock to see him head back into the skin of his own look and personality. In the early scenes of “Phantom Thread,” he’s urbane and inviting and demurely British, with his black-and-gray hair swept back; he’s so gentlemanly in his flirtation that he reminds you of someone like George Martin. After having dinner with Alma, Reynolds drives her over to his country studio, where she models for him, and he makes her a dress. It’s love at first stitch.

But, of course, we’re all too aware that something ominous has to be lurking in the shadows. There wouldn’t be a movie otherwise, and the plangent pull of Jonny Greenwood’s musical score, rapturous with longing and anxiety, summons an unmistakable ’50s-Hitchcock vibe. So does Anderson’s meticulous filmmaking. Reynolds is presented as a feverish artisan of fashion, sketching and sewing his way to a vision of the feminine ideal. He courts Alma by using her as a human mannequin, and it’s therefore hard not to get intimations of a movie like “Vertigo,” or maybe a super-kinky “Pygmalion.” Will “Phantom Thread” turn out to be the story of a man who falls for his fetishistic design of a woman?

The film’s dilemma, as it happens, isn’t nearly that spectacularly perverse. Reynolds comes under Alma’s spell, and since he’s a severely handsome and well-known designer, and she’s an expatriate nobody waiting tables in a country hotel, it doesn’t take higher math to see where this power imbalance is heading. Alma returns to London with Reynolds and becomes his new model and muse. He moves her into the bedroom upstairs — right next to his, as if conferring some great privilege, though it already sounds like he’s talking about a birdcage.

Do they sleep together? The movie doesn’t show that kind of thing (the oblique implication is yes), but their problems start at breakfast, where Alma butters her toast, and pours her tea, in a disarmingly noisy manner, which skews Reynolds’ train of thought. A little later, she makes the mistake of challenging one of his choices of fabrics, which leads to a back-and-forth verbal volley worthy of a screwball comedy, only Reynolds doesn’t want feisty rejoinders — he wants to be obeyed. (Just when the exchange is starting to sizzle, he shouts, “Enough!”) Did I mention that Reynolds’ sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), is sitting there during every one of these encounters? She’s his business partner, and also, apparently, his eternal companion (along with the ghost of his dead mother). Reynolds and Cyril are close in a way that suggests something warm, loyal, and a little unseemly. She’s like the housekeeper in Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” creepy and a touch macabre, always hovering, except that the great Lesley Manville, her eyes like black lasers, her hair piled into a short stacked ‘do, plays her like the Judi Dench version of a John Waters character: a badass in dowager’s clothing.

Anderson, who didn’t just write and direct “Phantom Thread” but shot it himself (uncredited), stages the movie as a lavishly suspenseful piece of wealth porn. His camera travels up and down the stairways of the townhouse, and he lingers on Reynolds’ work as a designer, swathing us in the physicality of the fabrics — the 16th-century Flemish lace out of which he makes Alma a gorgeous lavender dress, or a stunning royal silky number with pink diamonds on the breast. Anderson, in making the film, drew on the careers of several British designers of the period (like Charles James), and the essential exotic element for the audience is that this is the pre-couture world, where fashion, at least in Britain, had yet to enter its postmodern dream phase. That was just starting in France, and Reynolds, at one point, spits out the word “chic” as if it were a vile obscenity.

For all the attention it lavishes on Reynolds’ designs, and on the daily swirl of his existence, where he’s surrounded by a flurry of seamstresses, “Phantom Thread” isn’t, at heart, a tale of artistic passion. It’s a parable of toxic masculinity. Reynolds’ last name, Woodcock, can sound like it was invented to reduce Beavis and Butt-Head to a state of grunting hysterics — but, in fact, the meaning of the name is exactly that. Day-Lewis’s Woodcock is a stiff, a hard virile puppet of a man — a selfish vessel of male desire. He has invited Alma to fall in love with him, and she does, but all that means to Reynolds is that he wants to go on with his life as is (the work, the parties, the routine), with Alma as the girl utensil he takes down from the shelf whenever he feels like it. The movie is constructed as a kind of suspenseful showdown: Will Reynolds the elegant tyrant of fake romance, with his Woodcock coldness, break her down? Or will she turn the tables?

“Phantom Thread” is seductive and absorbing, but it’s also emotionally remote. The film is framed as a love story, but it never swoons, and it’s enough to make you wonder: Why does Anderson, whose work back in the late ’90s (the transcendent “Boogie Nights,” the enraptured “Magnolia”) pulsated with off-kilter humanity, now make dramas that are essentially didactic studies of fantastically cold brutes? He remains a filmmaking wizard, and “Phantom Thread” sweeps you up and carries you along, much more, to my mind, than “The Master” did. Yet it’s a thesis movie: the story of a bullying narcissist who lacks the ability to have a relationship, and the outrageous way he’s schooled into becoming a human being. It’s the story of a control freak made by a control freak.

Did all of this start with “Raging Bull”? In “Phantom Thread,” Daniel Day-Lewis, who has declared that this will be his last screen performance, seems to be relishing the chance to play another flamboyant emotional fascist, and the movie asks the audience to chortle along, notably in the sequence where Alma tries to assert her place in the scheme of things by making an intimate dinner for herself and Reynolds. She has to shoo everyone out of the townhouse as if she were clearing Buckingham Palace, and when Reynolds walks in, he acts like he’s been ambushed. Will he eat his asparagus with butter the way she’s prepared it? Why should he? He likes them with oil and salt!

The sequence plays like the “Masterpiece Theatre” version of “There Will Be Blood,” with Krieps, as Alma, asserting her radiant devotion in the face of Reynolds’ stone-cold rejection. It’s at that moment that she decides to go to extremes — a twist out of a thriller that’s also a dark joke. It certainly plays (at least the first time), but it’s hard to shake the feeling that Day-Lewis, along with Anderson, has confused misanthropy with art. The actor plays Reynolds with a winning puckish gleam that turns sinister, but I can’t say that he goes out with a great performance.

“Phantom Thread” comes on, for a good long stretch, like Anderson’s sprawling version of “Rebecca” or “Suspicion”: a romantic suspense thriller coursing with dread. I wish it had stayed on that track, but Anderson isn’t content to make a black-hearted retro genre film. He’s too ambitious, and once Alma exacts her revenge, the movie does something a little bizarre: It goes back to square one, so that Reynolds, even after proposing to Alma, turns out to be the same old dick he always was. The film, in what should have been its culminating passages, loses steams and grows repetitive, building toward the scene in which Reynolds eats an omelette, colluding — knowingly — in his own punishment and reform. It’s supposed to be the film’s capstone of perversity: toxic masculinity toxifying itself. But it just made me wish that Paul Thomas Anderson would stop making movies about people who are so stunted that he can’t help adoring them for it.

Film Review: ‘Phantom Thread’

Reviewed at DGA Theater, New York, Dec. 3, 2017. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 130 MIN.

  • Production: Director, screenplay: Paul Thomas Anderson. Editor: Dylan Tichenor. Music: Jonny Greenwood.
  • Crew: A Focus Features release of an Annapurna, Perfect World Pictures, Joanne Sellar/Ghoulardi Film Company production. Producers: Joanna Sellar, Paul Thomas Anderson, Megan Elison, Daniel Lupi. Executive producers: Adam Somner, Peter Heslop, Chelsea Barnard.
  • With: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville, Camilla Rutherford, Gina McKee, Brian Gleeson, Harriet Sansom Harris, Lujza Richter, Julia Davis.