Phantom Thread movie review: hate couture

MaryAnn’s quick take: A conundrum of a film that defies genre as it twirls us around a wickedly fascinating triad of gently, quietly manipulative people. A cinematic experience of sly eeriness and oblique mystique.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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What even is fashion? I’m talking about high fashion here — as Paul Thomas Anderson is in Phantom Thread — not the everyday ideas about, say, what sort of sneaker is cool at the moment, but the world of haute couture, of catwalks, of rail-thin models who serve as hangers for the clothing they wear. Is it art? Is it power? Is it manipulation? Is it abandon? Is it control?

It’s all of those things in this conundrum of a film, and the mystery of the strangeness of the people at the heart of it could be the phantom thread that binds all those notions together, and all of them together. This triad of designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis: Nine, There Will Be Blood), his sister and business partner, Cyril (Lesley Manville: Molly Moon and the Incredible Book of Hypnotism, Mr. Turner), and his new lover and muse, Alma (Vicky Krieps: A Most Wanted Man, Anonymous)… they are a tangle of quiet passive-aggressiveness and overt contempt; they provoke and placate one another in turn; they play a roundrobin of dominance and submission, and run a relay race of awfulness as they trade off playing the role of the worst among them. They are wickedly fascinating in a way that sneaks up on you.

“Cyril is always right,” Reynolds says of his sister and business partner... and she wields his regard for her like a velvet sledgehammer.
“Cyril is always right,” Reynolds says of his sister and business partner… and she wields his regard for her like a velvet sledgehammer.

The whole movie sneaks up on you, in fact. Some films merely blend genre or defy genre: Phantom Thread leaves you unsure which genres are even going to come into play before it goes on to blend and defy the ones it settles on. The film’s opening moments, depicting Reynolds going about his fastidious morning toilette, shouldn’t be so eerie, except that Jonny Greenwood’s sly score makes it so… and then we’re with Alma, speaking to someone unknown offscreen, in a conspiratorial, confessional sort of way, and this is eerie. The film, we see, is going to be a flashback illustrating how “Reynolds has made [her] dreams come true,” and how she has given him “what he desires most… every piece of me.” She looks blissful, but why does that sound ominous?

Reynolds is a terrible man, we soon learn, who insults women in the same breath in which he flatters them (this is set in the 1950s; today we’d call that negging) and believes that avoiding being “deceitful” makes him a decent person; “just being honest!” is how he justifies his cruelty. Yet Day-Lewis imbues him with an elegance that almost gaslights you in the same way that he does with Alma from practically the moment they meet: like you can’t believe he just said or did such an appalling thing, and surely you’ve misheard or misunderstood. And the reverse is true, too; his seeming kindness has its own unkind motivation. “You look beautiful,” he tells her gently one evening out, which sounds lovely… until you realize that he’s complimenting himself: he designed and tailored the dress she’s wearing especially for her. Reynolds is a serene monster. (The actor says this will be his last performance, that he’s retiring from acting. I’ll only believe that when he never acts again. But if he sticks to it, he will have gone out on the highest note of an extraordinary career of creating characters that indelibly stamp themselves on your imagination.)

The great man won’t let his muse and model get above herself: he designs a gown for her that recalls her waitressing uniform.
The great man won’t let his muse and model get above herself: he designs a gown for her that recalls her waitressing uniform.

Alma seems a fragile, flighty thing when Reynolds first meets her, as a clumsy, awkward waitress in a restaurant. Her framing of the story as one of giving herself entirely over to Reynolds is suddenly deeply worrying to us: is this going to be another dreadful tale of a woman subsumed to a man, sacrificed to his creativity? Is this going to be another mother!?

Fortunately, Phantom Thread is not. Anderson (There Will Be Blood, Magnolia) doesn’t deny that a man like Reynolds may certainly attempt to mold women to his needs and take from them without giving back, but the filmmaker has given us a story in which the women are fully aware of what that man is doing, and have agendas of their own, are seizing their own power from the situation, which is more than their conservative 1950s culture would ever openly allow them. Manville’s and Krieps’s performance are masterpieces of subtlety and diversion, and in a movie that immerses you in a world that is both as expansive as postwar London society and as intimate as their home-cum-atelier, they move about with the assuredness that they are the heroines of their own stories. (And they are.) This is a movie where you could easily go back and rewatch it three times, each time paying sole attention to just one of the three central characters, and each time be wholly convinced that it is that person’s story alone. And each time, you would still find that nothing here is what you think it is going to be. That’s a rare thing for a film to achieve, to not telegraph where it is going to take you, to retain its oblique mystique even upon subsequent viewings. (I’ve seen the film twice now.) That’s simply extraordinary.

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Matt Clayton
Matt Clayton
Thu, Jan 18, 2018 4:11pm

I might have to watch this, purely due to your delightful and insightful review. The trailer was a turn-off, honestly.

Sat, Jan 20, 2018 8:44pm

Wonderful review, probably the best I’ve read so far, talking of the richness of the three characters and their vying for power, the hidden bits like his hidden messages and trinkets in his garments, or his hidden inspiration, the welcomed haunting of his mother’s spirit. There are so many layers, subtle layers lost on so many reviewers, the beauty with which Alma navigates, bringing a healthier balance and more intimacy to the genius’ life and to his sister, who finally finds her own voice and ultimately respects the one love interest who would not be dismissed. Such beauty and what a meditation on love and intimacy having its private laugh. I would watch this one over and over too!! Gorgeous from every angle.

Matt Clayton
Matt Clayton
Mon, Mar 05, 2018 3:37am

I saw it last week, and was a bit puzzled with the plot. Fantastic performances from all three leads, but I though Day-Lewis was a bit more restrained than expected. Krieps and Manville were better, especially Manville’s tart line deliveries.

Costume designs were quite intricate and beautiful, no wonder it won the Oscar. And even though there’s no official DOP, Paul Thomas Anderson did quite well with the visuals and lighting.

It was a mixed bag for me. Great performances, lush score, but the plot was a little too opaque. But I can see why Anderson has a devoted fanbase.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Matt Clayton
Sun, Mar 11, 2018 10:44am

What did you find puzzling?

Matt Clayton
Matt Clayton
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Mon, Mar 12, 2018 2:57am

It was the ending. Was this a love-hate relationship where she lets him browbeat her verbally, she poisons him, and he needs her to get well — then rinse, wash, and repeat? Was PTA trying to make a comment on some artists’ twisted relationships and the emotional pain Woodcock gives Alma for the few crumbs of love she eats up?

Was she fantasizing a more harmonious relationship with Woodcock post-poisoning, i.e. meeting the sister in the park with her new baby? That’s what confused me.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Matt Clayton
Tue, Mar 13, 2018 4:12pm

Maybe all of that. Maybe she gets off on having him in her power.

I don’t think there’s one pat answer to your questions.

reply to  Matt Clayton
Wed, Mar 21, 2018 12:23pm

Woodcock needed his mother – the all-encompassing, nurturing force – in his life, something the film straightforwardly and themetically highlights. Alma needed to be needed, to be seen as someone’s “whole world”.

Via the poisoning, the two are trapped in a continual cycle of co-dependence, where both get what they want in a strange and twisted sort of fashion.