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 couturier, whose methods are likewise painstaking even as they guarantee his craft. Anderon’s camera glides up and down the spiral staircase of Woodcock’s mansion with the precision of a piece of thread, mirroring the meticulous perfectionism that holds his universe together and which threatens to unravel at the slightest deviation from artistic process.
Reynolds Woodcock has premised his craft on retaining absolute control, overseeing his fashion house like a 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 his claustrophobic empire, 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 appetite for the women that serve as his muses, making it clear 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 artist’s lair, where, behind closed doors, his behavior is between that of a zealous workaholic and a tyrannical child.
But Woodcock’s airtight world of muses and masculine genius will find itself in danger when he meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress who serves him breakfast during one of his excursions to the English countryside. She becomes his next muse, her lithe figure and unaffected beauty renewing his artistic energies and giving way to a succession of showcased gowns.
But Phantom Thread is hardly the story of a vicious cycle at last overturned by true love. Woodcock’s unexpected encounter with Alma has merely furnished a fresh dose of inspiration and made it possible (or so he thinks) to return to his regimented existence, with the renewed certainty that he will make another mark on British couture. For Woodcock, infatuation is merely a phase.
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, she 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 spontaneity 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 our 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 model, and we see her consternation as her likely replacement poses for one of Woodcock’s fittings.
But Alma is different from the many women – adored then discarded – who have passed through this fashion house. Instead of submitting to Woodcock’s callous dismissal, she locks him in a battle of wills. With a frigidness that rivals Cyril’s, she masters her emotions and coolly threads her way through his universe, calculating what it will take to make herself indispensable. Yet, even as we anticipate her victory, the film hints that Woodcock’s maniacal, self-obsessed routine may merely reconfigure into a twisted ritual involving them both.