'Phantom Thread': Paul Thomas Anderson's love story is weird by design

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread is a cockeyed love story that starts as weirdly as it ends.

A famous and famously meticulous fashion designer named Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is flirting with a young woman named Alma (Vicky Krieps). He does so by talking about how much of his art is an expression of an enduring love for his dear, departed mother.

To the young woman, I would say: Run like hell.

The last person in the movies who talked about his mother in such a way was Norman Bates.

Read more: Director Paul Thomas Anderson: ‘Phantom Thread’ is funny, even if it made Daniel Day-Lewis announce plans to retire

Speaking of Hitchcock, Woodcock has a sister, and she’s straight out of Rebecca. Her name is Cyril, and she dresses like a widow and watches Alma like a hawk — there’s more than a whiff of Mrs. Danvers. She looms protectively over her brother as a kind of business manager and bouncer — Cyril is the stoic interface between the temperamental Woodcock and his posh clients, and she’s the person assigned to tell Woodcock’s string of girlfriends they’ve reached their sell-by date. (It’s a shrewdly withholding performance from Lesley Manville, whose character has layers to be revealed in later scenes.)

Red flags abound, but Alma pursues her relationship with Woodcock fearlessly. She becomes his girlfriend, then a model for his dresses, then a collaborator, challenging the master with design ideas of her own.

Woodcock has viewed women as disposable, and here’s one who meets him on his own ground, and won’t back down. He gazes at her in a mixture of fascination of disbelief, and when he does, Alma is typically forthright.

“If you are going to have a staring contest with me, you will lose,” she says.

What Woodcock sees in the formidable Alma is obvious. What she sees in Woodcock is less so, by design. The nature of their symbiotic attraction is not fully addressed until the concluding scenes, and even in then their connection retains an air of kinky mystery.

Phantom Thread is the second collaboration of writer-director Anderson and Day-Lewis (following There Will Be Blood), but it feels more of a piece with Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love, another strangely comic story of an emotionally isolated man drawn out by a woman who may have a few quirks of her own.

In Woodcock’s case, his stifling perfectionism has begun to stifle even him. His classic designs are still popular in the 1950s London (with period details cleverly suggested by Anderson, who also uses era-appropriate film techniques and a lush, throwback score), but the industry is changing, and “chic” new designs are in vogue. He senses it.

“There is an air of death in this house,” Woodcock says, and he’s not talking about mom, who haunts him, quite literally.

Day-Lewis is right for the role. It’s hard to think of an actor more qualified in terms of skill, and by his very nature, to play a walled-off, obsessive creative type. And he’s able to register Woodcock’s arrogance and finicky quirks without making the man seem insufferable — Alma’s interest in him makes emotional sense.

Is the relationship … healthy?

It’s a question Anderson poses, with a wink, in the movie’s concluding scenes. Suffice it to say Alma does not suffer under the yoke of oppression.

  

MOVIES

Phantom Thread

  • Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. With Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville, Sue Clark, Joan Brown, and Julie Duck. Distributed by Focus Features.
  • Parent's guide: R (language).
  • Running time: 2 hours, 7 mins.
  • Playing at: Ritz Five