In Paul Thomas Anderson’s gothically-titled Phantom Thread, Daniel Day-Lewis plays a man as famously exacting as himself: a renowned dressmaker in ’50s London named Reynolds Woodcock. The actor’s approach to his work finds its supreme outlet in the meticulous couturier, whose methods are likewise torturous even as they guarantee his exquisite creations. Anderson’s film dissects Woodcock’s creative genius with Hitchcockian coldness, leading us down the twisted corridors of his artist-muse relationships and his near-crippling perfectionism.
Reynolds Woodcock has premised his craft on retaining absolute control, overseeing his fashion house like a preening supercilious god. He leaves no room for error, none for uncertainty, and certainly none for deep romantic feeling, as the latter could prove the most devastating distraction of all. His unmarried sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) runs the business side of things, executing every detail according to his wishes. Her icy poise and efficiency enhance the chiseled feel of this world in which they are sealed off. She is his accomplice in everything, condoning his rapacious appetite for the women that serve as his muses, making it clear that they have no choice but to bend to her brother’s will, and promptly dismissing them once they’ve lost their allure. She guards the gates of Woodcock’s sacred artist’s lair, where, behind closed doors, his behavior is between that of a zealous workaholic and a tyrannical child.
But Woodcock’s insular world of muses and masculine genius will find itself in danger when he meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), a spirited waitress who serves him breakfast during one of his getaways to the English countryside. She becomes his next model, her lithe figure and unaffected beauty renewing his artistic energies and giving way to a succession of gorgeous gowns, displayed before the upper-crust crowds of Woodcock admirers.
But viewers should make no mistake, for Phantom Thread is hardly the story of artistic originality at last set free through unbridled passion. Woodcock’s unexpected encounter with Alma has merely made it possible for him to return to his regimented existence with the renewed certainty that he will make another triumphant mark on British couture. For the pulseless Woodcock, passion is merely a phase in a larger, far more significant cycle of artistic creation, one that is calibrated every step of the way.
But with Alma, Woodcock finds that the artist-muse relationship he has always controlled is no longer playing out on his terms. Unlike the previous women who modeled his dresses, Alma refuses to fit into his world like a grateful, adoring mannequin. With a will of her own, she is not afraid to defy him and is given to flights of unpredictability that clash dangerously with his own fastidious rituals. In one of the funniest scenes, we see Alma upset Woodcock’s morning breakfast routine as she loudly butters her toast, disturbing his sketch work. The bristling Woodcock finds it unbearable and storms out of the room, prompting Cyril to warn Alma, “If breakfast isn’t right, it’s very hard for him to recover for the rest of the day.”
But the humor of seeing Reynolds thrown off-kilter is offset by the sobering awareness that Alma’s days in the House of Woodcock are numbered. It is not long before another woman arrives – younger, fresher, a descendant of French royalty. For Alma, it is a bitter foretaste of her status as the used-up muse, and we see her consternation as her likely replacement poses for one of Reynolds’ famous fittings.
Yet Alma is different from the countless women who have passed through this fashion house. Though rattled and hurt, she does not let her nerves overtake her. Instead, like Reynolds himself, she makes a cold and necessary calculation: What will it take to secure her place? Refusing to be adored and then discarded, or to play the fallen heroine in a worn-out tale of unrequited love, Alma masters her emotions with a frigidness that rivals Cyril’s. She is, as we will abruptly discover, determined to make herself indispensable to Woodcock. Though his prestige and imposing personality are poised to reduce her to a mere pawn, Alma locks him in a battle of wills that keeps us wondering: Will she at last break the vicious cycle of Woodcock taking women under his wing, devouring them for his own purposes, and tossing them aside the moment they cease to inspire him?