By Preston Wilder
Tom Cruise may have put it best, 20 years ago in Magnolia: “Respect! The cock!”. There’s another cock in Phantom Thread (from the same director as Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson) – namely Reynolds Woodcock, a fashion designer and high-end dressmaker in 1950s London. Reynolds, played by Daniel Day-Lewis in what the actor claims will be his final performance, is the artist as controlling patriarch, joining a gallery of troubled masculinity in Anderson’s films ranging from merely volatile (Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love) to downright psychotic (Joaquin Phoenix in The Master).
Reynolds makes dresses for the rich and unconfident. “It’s beautiful,” says one lovely customer, snug in her new work of art. “I feel it will give me courage”. Close-ups show buttons tightening, straps trussed together, skin being squeezed; Reynolds literally imprisons these women in his dresses. He’s a “demanding man”, so we’re told, unwilling to tailor his life to anyone else’s measurements; he’s never married (“Marriage would make me deceitful”) but goes through a steady stream of girlfriends. We glimpse one of them as the film begins, a forlorn creature trying in vain to get Reynolds’ attention; before long she’s been sent on her way, with a dress as a going-away present.
Feminists may balk at the film’s dynamic – but, even beyond the pre-feminist setting, it would be wrong to assume that Phantom Thread makes a hero of Reynolds. His life is circumscribed; he’s as trapped as the women he dresses. Everything must be just-so, his breakfasts uninterrupted, his asparagus served with oil and salt (never butter). His only real devotion is to his long-dead mother. Day-Lewis’ easy authority has never seemed more effortless – but there’s also, increasingly, a hollowness to this brilliant tyrant. The actor is famous for becoming one with the characters he plays, and you have to wonder if his decision to retire may have been influenced by spending all those months in the skin of Reynolds Woodcock. “I do know that Paul and I laughed a lot before we made the movie,” DDL has said by way of explanation. “And then we stopped laughing, because we were both overwhelmed by a sense of sadness.” Could the slow draining of Reynolds’ authority – the way he seems to grow weaker and more irrelevant over the course of the movie – also have been the actor’s own?
Note, after all, that Daniel Day-Lewis is 60, 26 years older than his leading lady. That lady is Vicky Krieps (a Luxembourger who’s come twice to Cyprus, and been profiled in this very paper) as Alma, Reynolds’ latest conquest who proves to be more tenacious than her predecessors. Alma isn’t terribly dynamic; we see her first as a waitress in a restaurant, where she laughs and stumbles and blushes. She’s insecure about her body. Her strengths are essentially passive, but they’re strengths nonetheless. She has patience; she can stand for hours, modelling his dresses without getting tired. If we get in a staring contest, you’ll lose, she warns her man, even as she serves him and caters to his every whim. Phantom Thread is a slow-motion duel between two stubborn people – or, more accurately, two monomaniacs. They each have one goal, and structure their lives around it.
The film too is monomaniacal, lacking something in breathing-space; Anderson has a gift for intensity, but it sometimes translates to sounding the same note over and over. Thread is also less ornate, more sedate than (for instance) There Will Be Blood, the previous collaboration between star and director. Yet it’s also a rich movie, even beyond its images – Alma by firelight, with her blood-red dress and fair complexion – rich and deceptively strange, a case of pathological behaviour buried beneath a lush, gorgeous surface of country homes, delicious meals and elegant dresses. It’s a film where love, in the sense of being open and sincere, is impossible; love can only exist through the art – Reynolds and Alma make love after taking back a wedding dress from a woman who “doesn’t deserve” it (a woman, incidentally, who claimed to stand for sincerity) – or as part of a kinky game.
You might say it’s a film about confidence. It takes confidence to presume to tell a woman what looks good on her. It takes confidence to order breakfast like Reynolds does, an elaborate order (Welsh rarebit with a poached egg on top, not too runny…) that doubles as a form of wooing. It takes confidence to be a great artist – but confidence is also part of ‘confidence trick’. Reynolds’ masculine strength is a trick, a sham, a tired front for a stunted existence; it’s as attractive as his clothes, and just as specious. Phantom Thread is a story of secrets deposited in the linings of dresses, unspoken fears held at arm’s-length by art – a tale of a man who knows women’s measurements but shies away from their hearts, and is finally exposed as their plaything. The cock brought low, and disrespected.
DIRECTED BY Paul Thomas Anderson
STARRING Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville
US 2017 130 mins