Phantom Thread movie cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville
Phantom Thread movie director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Phantom Thread movie rating: 3 stars
There is a reason threads shouldn’t be left hanging, and writer, director and cinematographer (uncredited) Paul Thomas Anderson is handling just too many here to prevent an unwieldy — if always pretty — tangle.
So what is Phantom Thread about, apart from the obvious, which is the unseen ties that bind? Is it about a misogynistic, sexist, self-centred man who gets away with treating women like little more than clotheshorses in the name of art? Is it a comment on that art itself, and in the fickle, sadistic world of fashion this particular one operates in? Is it about a dysfunctional brother-sister relationship, haunted by a mother who went through troubled times? Is it about the woman who comes in this midst, as the artist’s submissive muse who slowly and unnoticed alters the balance of power?
Clearly, in one scene at the end that packs in more emotion than the rest of the film combined, Anderson is hoping for the last. However, little of what that precedes it fits in with this narrative.
That is not to say this isn’t Anderson or Daniel Day-Lewis, working together again after There Will Be Blood, at their best (earning six Oscar nominations, no less). Anderson mounts a visually delightful film. With Day-Lewis declaring Phantom Thread to be his last film, it adds a secondary layer of sadness to this story about an artiste learning to “take it easy”. The role of Reynolds, the man who dresses up countesses, princesses, and other all and sundry of high society in Europe of the 1950s, isn’t something you would associate with him normally. And yet this is precisely him, the artiste sure of his art and of little else.
It’s precisely why Reynolds needs his sister, Cecile (Manville), around him, at all times. She is the doorkeeper who keeps the rest of the world out of the delicate home Reynolds and she have created for themselves, of rare lace, pristine silk, and fragile bodice. She is the one who gets rid of the muses Reynolds tires of quickly, a fact hinted at with how she disposes of one such woman, gifting her “an old dress” as compensation. This muse’s fault had been to offer Reynolds something “sludgy” at breakfast — essentially a doughnut dripped in cream, which later he is seen relishing.
It is soon after that he discovers Alma (Krieps), a warm, resplendent waitress who takes his order of a scrumptious breakfast at a seaside hotel. It’s a crush at first order, so to speak. Reynolds finds in her his ideal body shape, Alma says he allows her to feel perfect. Food is meant to signify another kind of passion in Phantom Thread, but it’s again a thread that hangs limp. Particularly when in the genteel world that Reynolds imagines himself in, the crunch of a toasted bread is an unpardonable intrusion.
One has high hopes of this love at start, and Anderson stages it beautifully, right up to the time Reynolds lodges Alma in a room at his house in London. There is romance, desire and longing in their every touch till this point, but much as the rest of the film, the writer-director stops just short of any real human entanglement.
Meanwhile, Cecile hangs in the background of their relationship as a constant malignant presence. But while Manville achieves a lot with the arch of her eyebrows and the sharp look of her tart eyes, she isn’t really given anything tangible to do.
There is a clear hint of Hitchcock’s Rebecca in the whole staging of the story of Reynolds, Alma and Manville, caught together in a house where dreams of countless strangers are woven at a suggested great personal cost. But this film is more about one man’s dreams than other people’s costs. And you can’t help wonder for those others — such as the line of women assistants who labour every day around him, all in drab, white lab coats; all in tightly tied white-and-pepper hair; all plain, unnoticed, uncomplaining. All the better to make the Emperor look more resplendent.