HAUTE couture is a craft of delicate order. It demands an attention to detail that few possess and a preciseness that even fewer can render.
In the world of high end fashion, life and death can be decided by the length of a stitch. It is a strict order that is reflected in the rigid social status of those who inhabit this space. Rich and royal figures that desire only the most exquisite garments to reaffirm and flaunt their worth at social events.
In Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Phantom Thread the couture’s needle is firmly in the fastidious hand of Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel-Day Lewis). Flanked by his sternly astute sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), Reynolds turns long reels of fabric into wearable works of classical art. With such command of needle and thread, he demands a similar level of deference as Lewis’ most prodigious characters.
Reynolds, like There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview, is unapologetically controlling and ruthlessly driven, his lofty frame making him all the more imposing. Yet Reynolds would rather poke himself in the eye with a needle than roll around in the oil and mud like a predatory capitalist. He is, instead, a suffering artist who needs neat and tidy structure to his life – whether it be quiet at breakfast or the right cooking oil with his food.
A self-professed bachelor, Reynolds also prefers to have a second woman by his side. The first we meet is quickly disposed of by Cyril after disturbing Reynolds’ sketching at breakfast – a cardinal sin. Enter an understated beautiful German waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps). She becomes Reynolds’ new obsession, at least when it suits him, as he dresses her in some of the finest clothes imaginable.
In turn, Alma tolerates late nights and early wake up calls for dress fittings. She can, as she glowingly tells us, ‘stand longer than anyone else’. Along with her desirable shape, such dedication makes her the perfect muse for Reynolds’ meticulous work. Alma, too, is willing to nurse Reynolds back to health when his work fizzles and he crumbles into an infantile state.
Such a capitulation is one of the sacrifices of Reynolds’ art and is seemingly partly connected to his relationship with his deceased mother. A woman who introduced him to the art of dressmaking – and clearly left him too soon. Reynolds is sure to pay homage by leaving hidden mementoes in the clothes he stitches. The title, therefore, is possibly a reference to these hidden items and the phantom thread that links a vulnerable Reynolds to his mother. Even still, Alma is all too happy to step in and mother Reynolds – it is, after all, the only time she gets any control.
As Alma battles to understand Reynolds’ tightly woven idiosyncrasies, their relationship begins to resemble a chess game. The moves including resentful glances, aggressively salted asparagus and grinded up poisonous mushrooms. The stakes rack up nicely, without ever betraying the film’s refined tone.
Phantom Thread is wonderfully shot. It has the same crackling 35mm beauty as Todd Haynes’ Carol, along with a proactively suave camera style that is as classy as the gowns that populate the film.
Anderson has laid on a fittingly well-clothed curtain closer for Lewis – if it is truly the end. A story about the hard-wiring often found in truly great artists. That is exactly what Lewis is.
Here he adds another powerhouse performance to his already sublime acting career. There is no more dressing up needed – Daniel-Day Lewis is one of the greatest actors of all time.