Anderson looks freer than ever, and he appears primed to enter the most exciting phase of his career to date.
Acting as his own cinematographer, Paul Thomas Anderson films the initial scenes of Phantom Thread with the same overlit, finely detailed close-ups that have characterized his recent output. We see the morning routine of fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), the fastidiousness of his grooming and the deliberate pace of his work preparation. Around him, workers and models flood his house, the camera arcing and tilting with their ascension of a spiral staircase, the lens gazing up at blinding white sunlight pouring through a ceiling window. The montage that establishes Woodcock’s home and routine is both opulent and cramped, an illustration of the designer’s supreme command of his surroundings and the narrow, solipsistic focus of his genius.
That cramped quality lines up with the oddly joyless tone of these bright images, which convey fussiness over artistic élan. When Reynolds’s muse, Henrietta (Gina McKee) arrives, the images turn to POV shots of the designer and his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), watching the aging model as she struggles to fasten the dress, leaving a slight but exaggerated bit of excess flesh poking around the edges that the camera zooms in on without mercy. The sound design ratchets up so that every step she takes in the tight garment sounds as if the fabric is about to burst. At no point does it occur to Reynolds that perhaps his design is too small or that he should have taken his model’s measurements before crafting her a dress; he can only watch in mute disgust as the woman fails to live up to his ideal, and Henrietta has barely left the house before the Woodcocks agree to find a new muse for Reynolds.
He finds one in the form of Alma (Vicky Krieps), a shy waitress he meets while on a brief holiday. Where Reynolds fixated on every minimal flaw in Henrietta, he lavishes praise on the body parts that Alma herself finds ugly; he loves her long neck, large legs and slender torso because they fit his design style. Reynolds immediately sets about seducing Alma to return to London with him, half sincerely smitten with her and half interested only in a new, perfect clotheshorse. Once there, Alma falls madly for her companion and boss, intoxicated by the elite world into which he brings her.
Just as quickly, however, Alma discovers the dark, controlling side of Reynolds, and the swooning camera movements that communicated her affection for the man soon reflect the claustrophobia of being trapped in the same room as his solipsistic genius. Scenes of Alma taking breakfast with Reynolds are manipulated so that every single thing she does—buttering bread, stirring coffee, shifting slightly in her chair—is amplified to deafening decibels, driving Reynolds insane with petulant rage. Anderson mimics some of his usual DP Robert Elswit’s techniques, such as the way he lights faces and moves the camera, but the confined dimensions of the Woodcock house restrict Anderson’s roving style, adding to the overall unease by upending the director’s typically open frames with clutter and proximity.
Anderson has acknowledged the influence of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca on the film, and it’s not hard to spot the similarities between the two. Reynolds, with his fey and delicate tyranny, recalls Laurence Olivier’s Maxim, albeit filtered through the lens of solipsistic artistic posturing. Reynolds rarely shouts, but his fussy orders and hair-trigger irritability make him unbearable and domineering. For an actor who once made the My Left Foot crew carry him around the set because he refused to stop pretending to be disabled to stay in character, Day-Lewis is surprisingly self-effacing, playing Reynolds with an incessant petulance that marks a belated show of humor in the actor’s work. Reynolds looks like every single time he must raise his head from a sketchbook for some fabric he’s sewing that he is exerting an extreme force of will, and the effort drains him of patience. Manville, an excellent seriocomic actress, infuses Cyril with an imperious, Mrs. Danvers-esque tone of constant psychological warfare, often the blunt voice of Reynolds’s catty insinuations, delivering hammer blows behind a veil of frigid calm. Cyril looks for all the world like all she wants out of any given day is for someone to try her, someone to dare talk back to give her the excuse to verbally lacerate them.
Yet the biggest surprise is the strength of Krieps’s performance. Alma, like Joan Fontain’s unnamed Rebecca protagonist, is introduced as a timid, self-conscious figure who willingly becomes Reynolds’s pliable object out of gratitude and affection for his attention, only to be gradually empowered by his validation in the ways the artist could not expect and steadfastly does not endorse. Alma’s increasingly standoffish tone with Reynolds complicates what might otherwise have been a simplistic treatise on artist-muse relationships, instead staging a battle of wills between the two that spirals into codependent madness.
Anderson has long struggled to know how to resolve his narratives, and his heretofore best conclusion, for Inherent Vice, built his inconclusiveness into its depleted and haunting ending. Phantom Thread, however, culminates in an upheaval that blurs the perspectives of the camerawork into a single, mad vision. The film may lack the thematic ambition that has characterized the director’s scattered studies of American capitalism, but in its place is a keenly observed character thriller, one that builds upon Hitchcock by wedding his intricate aesthetic suspense to characters who exist as more flesh and blood than thematic signifier. The fusion of the styles brings out the best in the actors, who balance old-school melodrama with looser, modern performance, as well as Anderson himself, who continues to grow in strange, bold new directions. Despite the claustrophobic, mannered set design and insular drama of the film, Anderson looks freer than ever, and he appears primed to enter the most exciting phase of his career to date.