Dirk Diggler, the hero of Boogie Nights, would find the name “Reynolds Woodcock” too on the nose. You’ll recall Diggler rose from a busboy to a porn star, and his “Brock Landers” persona got him accolades in the adult film world. All these improbable names come from Paul Thomas Anderson, who started as a bravura, showy filmmaker, only to become more focused and mature. As a name and character, Reynolds Woodcock fits perfectly into Phantom Thread, since Anderson now prefers a slow-burn drama over a sprawling epic.
To his credit and my relief, Anderson eschews the sprawling scope of Magnolia and There Will Be Blood. The scale of Phantom Thread is relatively specific, even narrow, with an attention to detail that demands constant engagement. Absent any answers or explanations, Anderson examines the clash between romance and idiosyncrasy – and the results can be sharply funny.
In his first film role since Lincoln, Day-Lewis plays Woodcock as a demanding, albeit soft-spoken fashion designer. It is the late 1950s in London, shortly before the Mod subculture, so Woodcock’s sumptuous dresses are all the rage. Women of all shapes and sizes, even actual princesses, want them. He meets a maid named Alma (Vicky Krieps) over breakfast one morning, and seduces her with a mix of adoration and eccentricity.
They go on a date, and Woodcock’s idea of seduction is to fit Alma into a dress. She is somewhat deferential, and yet Alma is careful in what she allows Woodcock to do. Eventually they are together, with the complication of Alma working as one of Woodcock’s many female assistants. Their relationship becomes an escalating battle of wills, with Woodcock’s sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) making sure that Alma never quite has the upper hand.
Most of the action takes place in Woodcock’s London home. It has the uncanny appearance of a wedding cake, with Anderson’s camera tilting the camera up the stairs so we can see all its layers. An untouched wedding cake is a good metaphor for Phantom Thread, since Woodcock prefers immaculate beauty over the implied trust or actual intimacy. Most scenes, especially the film’s many dress fittings, are an opportunity for Woodcock to assert his sly, dominant masculinity.
Anderson is keenly aware of his hero’s faults, so his moments of discomfort are where the film finds its humor. Still, I would not go so far as to say Phantom Thread is a comedy. There are no traditional jokes or punch lines, save the occasional withering insult. Its humor is entirely situational, and requires an understanding of what Alma/Woodcock represent to each other. If Robert Altman inspired Anderson’s films with a wide canvas of characters, then Harold Pinter inspired Phantom Thread. Language and inflection are tools to assert power; many lines have multiple meanings, depending on whether the characters can observe the subtext. Even an innocuous moment, like when Woodcock and Alma share breakfast, has the ferocity of battle. If there is a plot, it is only through power dynamics. Woodcock wants to compartmentalize Alma, like he compartmentalizes everything, but she (correctly) observes a relationship needs equal footing.
After traditional demands do not work, Alma becomes a canny strategist: in the film’s funniest scene, the pair attend the wedding of a vulgar woman who is wearing a Woodcock dress. The payoff leads to an important insight: nothing is more flattering than when your partner takes up your pet cause. It is ambiguous whether Woodcock and Alma recognize the erotic tension, or whether they’re wrapped up in the moment, and Anderson’s exacting detail somehow leaves room for both.
Phantom Thread is an immersive film, with a major assist from Anderson’s talented collaborators. Costume designer Mark Bridges strikes a difficult balance between plausible dresses and high fashion, with Alma’s clothes seeming the most natural. Anderson assumed double duty, working as his own cinematographer. Like Woodcock’s dresses, his compositions include strong colors and clean lines. Many shots are in deep focus, almost like a Hopper painting, although the technique never draws attention to itself until a technically complex party sequence (the only callback to the extravagance of Boogie Nights).
The most important collaboration, the one that elevates Phantom Thread among Anderson’s best films, is the score from Jonny Greenwood. It is almost entirely on a piano, repeating a melody that revolves with a jarring lilt. During the tense moments, sometimes we hear the plucks of a string instrument, as if the staccato notes represent Woodcock’s eroding sense of decorum. Greenwood mostly prefers to immerse us in the story, not comment on it. If you see this film, there is good chance you’ll stream the score shortly afterward.
Day-Lewis is arguably the best film actor of his generation, and yet Krieps is his equal. Phantom Thread would fall apart without performances that vibrate in sync with one another. How Alma and Woodcock find harmony is fascinating, even a little odd, since they avoid the typical path of a couple in love. In fact, one bizarre thing about the film is how Anderson studiously avoids sex. Aside from a scene where Woodcock pulls Alma into his bedroom, there is little sense of desire. The pair arrive at intimacy through other means, using techniques that might delight Freud or those in the BDSM community. Phantom Thread is not a romantic film, since Woodcock is too self-involved for that. Instead, it is about what it takes to “make it work.” That is not romantic, exactly, and yet anyone in a committed relationship will see that their sacrifices and demands are not all that exaggerated.