One of the most exquisite moments in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread,” a film composed entirely from exquisite moments, features a delicious riff on boy-meets-girl.
The boy is having breakfast at a country inn; the girl is waiting on him. She trips, charmingly, on her way to his table, then jots down his order — a feast of Welsh rarebit, scones and sausages — while returning his warm smile with a nervous, playful one of her own.
“Will you remember?” he asks, confiscating her notes. She will indeed.
Much of the pleasure of this spellbinding movie, set in England during the 1950s, lies in how lovingly Anderson stitches together those throwaway details. Even in this sweet first encounter between fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Alma (Vicky Krieps), a young waitress of unknown background, we see the beginnings of a dynamic that will darken and intensify: her clumsiness, his appetite, her eagerness to serve, his flirtation issued in the form of a challenge.
Alma passes the first test, and the next one as well. After dinner with Reynolds that evening, she goes home with him and disrobes. But what follows isn’t any ordinary consummation. He studies her figure and takes her measurements, rattling them off to his sister and business partner, Cyril (Lesley Manville), who, as she is wont to do, has appeared at his side like clockwork.
“You’re perfect,” he says, noting her flat chest.
Cyril agrees, whispering, “He likes a little belly.”
It’s a lot to take in, and Krieps gives a performance so emotionally responsive and minutely detailed that we can see Alma arrive at a crushing realization — she’s the latest model of many — before settling just as quickly into steely determination. Reynolds may be fitting her for a specific role, but he, too, will soon know how it feels to be whittled down to size.
So begins the tender and tempestuous love story of “Phantom Thread,” a darkly romantic comedy of manners and transporting invitation to a bygone world. It’s also an unsurprisingly bravura showcase for Day-Lewis, who, in what will reportedly be his final screen performance, leaves us with something indelible and at times marvelously loathsome — a portrait of the artist as a fey, prickly, hyper-demanding middle-aged man.
Most of all, the movie is a reminder that there are few American filmmakers quite like Anderson, who, after the dazzling Altmanesque panoramas of “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia,” has followed his instincts in ever more feverish and idiosyncratic directions.
His recent pictures, like the 1950s psycho-drama “The Master” and the ’70s noir “Inherent Vice,” feel less like stylized period pieces than weird, indelible relics of their respective eras — impeccably crafted, rich in mystery and attuned to their characters’ turbulent inner states. If Anderson’s canvases have become more brooding and self-contained since “There Will Be Blood,” his masterful 2007 collaboration with Day-Lewis, they have also opened windows onto vast and cavernous psychic landscapes.
“Phantom Thread” is at once a lush homage to vintage romantic melodramas, foremost Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” and a characteristically bold departure — not merely because it’s Anderson’s first production set outside the U.S.
The movie pulls you in immediately with its unsettling, exploratory vibe — the sense it conveys that you’ve seen something like it before, even as you assuredly haven’t.
To some extent, Alma makes that confusion manifest. Before long she becomes Reynolds’ lover and assistant and takes up residence in the Woodcocks’ London townhouse. She can seem lost in this world of tight corridors and staircases winding their way to infinity, where foreign princesses and local dowagers come for their fittings. But she’s always quick to regain her footing.
On some level Alma understands Reynolds better than he understands himself; her fierce protectiveness of the House of Woodcock’s reputation occasions the story’s most ardent romantic gesture. But it’s when she decides to love Reynolds in ways that don’t conform to the house style that she finds herself at sea. Having once stood out enough from the crowd to catch his attention, she’s now expected to integrate herself into his routine.
It’s only fitting that Day-Lewis, known for his own exacting Method intensity, should play a man so consumed by artistic commitment. The rewards of the actor’s process are plain to see in the suavity of his bearing, the devilish charisma, the silver, slicked-back hair that at times gives him the appearance of a debonair mad scientist. But Day-Lewis also lays bare the peevishness behind the smile — the arrogance, the contempt and, most of all, the childlike fragility that both aggravates Alma and keeps her coming back for more.
The fruits of Reynolds’ labors are even more wondrous to behold, in part because costume designer Mark Bridges never seems to be trying to wow us. With a few delicate exceptions, like a svelte, lacy red dress cleverly inspired by Alma’s waitress uniform, much of the Woodcock couture looks heavy and stiffly layered, suggesting a buttoned-up idea of society glamour. The gowns are stunning all the same, ravishments of lavender, green and gold, and almost architectural in their construction; it’s no accident that the assembly process, requiring numerous technicians working silently in white lab coats, brings surgery to mind.
But what finally gives “Phantom Thread” its subversive kick isn’t just its provocative theorizing about the pursuit of genius, the desire for domestic fulfillment and the sacrifices required to balance the two. It’s that Alma, in undertaking her strange, singular mission, is perversely elevated to the standing of an artist in her own right. She becomes this movie’s most sublime creation and the living embodiment of its spirit — triumphant, audacious and impossible to forget.