Movie review: Detangling ‘The Phantom Thread’

For the Bulletin
Thursday, February 01, 2018

Talk about uncomfortable first dates and challenging relationships. Alma, the young waitress in Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant if confounding “Phantom Thread,” is thrilled when the elegant fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock invites her home after dinner. She’s decidedly less excited when he starts meticulously measuring her for a dress instead of further wooing her. And she’s downright glum when his eccentric sister, Cyril, joins them to record the measurements and oversee the rest of the date.

Little does Alma know that Reynolds, played by the legendary British actor Daniel Day-Lewis in what he has said will be his last part in a movie, has only dispensed with his former lover the day before. Or, rather, he has had Cyril (Lesley Manville), inform the sad beauty who had been his most recent muse that her presence in his life is no longer desired.

We glimpse this former lover only briefly at breakfast, always an uncomfortable time at the Woodcock siblings’ residence, an exclusive fashion house in 1950s London. If the morning meal goes poorly, Reynolds’ concentration is shot for the rest of the day, he tells Alma with exasperation. This is not long after she has moved in and disrupted breakfast one day by buttering and eating her toast too loudly and pouring tea with too much vigor. Cyril suggests, after he storms away, that Alma should have breakfast by herself when the sensitive artist is in a mood.

Reynolds, in short, is a handful: an aging, lifelong bachelor who’s single-mindedly dedicated to his work. Viewers might find it implausible that any of his girlfriends would put up with him at all, notwithstanding his beautiful designs, if it weren’t for how utterly irresistible Day-Lewis makes him seem on occasion, most notably when he meets Alma for the first time. He is ordering breakfast, of all things, at a country inn, and the childlike enthusiasm with which he does is remarkable to behold.  Alma is smitten, and so are we.

Hardly another moment goes by, though, when borne along by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead’s trilling, thrilling score, we arrive at Reynolds’ next outrageous outburst or demand. In one of the movie’s funniest scenes, Reynolds is railing against something at breakfast while Alma can be seen buttering and eating toast with the utmost delicacy, lest she disturb him. Life with him is an emotional minefield.

As maddening as Reynolds is, though, he is not an unsympathetic character. Haunted by the specter of his late, beloved mother, perhaps the inspiration for the “phantom” of the title, he resembles a child in emotional distress. Alma intuits this and is willing to indulge his tantrums most but not all of the time. Although half his age, she is far from a pushover. We get an intimation of this when she tells him before their first date goes south that if he wants to engage in a staring contest with her, he will lose.

Alma’s a foreigner in England, from where we never learn — Vicky Krieps, the actress who winningly plays her is from Luxembourg — and we’re never quite sure what she’s thinking. In another of the movie’s funny scenes, she becomes as incensed as Reynolds does when one of his customers disrespects the dress he has designed for her by getting drunk while wearing it.

The sympathy we have for the characters has dramatically shifted by the time the movie ends, but how this happens is a mystery. A Paul Thomas Anderson movie — think of “The Master” about a cult leader or “Inherent Vice” about a stoner detective — doesn’t often add up all that neatly, and the final scenes of “Phantom Thread” are frustratingly indecipherable. Much like a Reynolds Woodcock dress, though, it is a sumptuous creation.

“Phantom Thread,” directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and starring Daniel Day-Lewis and  Vicky Krieps, is rated R and is currently playing at Amherst Cinema. For more information, visit amherstcinema.org.