Astonishing Performances Power Paul Thomas Andersen’s “Phantom Thread”

The films of Paul Thomas Anderson are anything but conventional, and Phantom Thread is not even close to an exception. Anderson writes and directs this story about Reynolds Woodcock, paragon of the 1950s haute couture scene. Daniel Day Lewis portrays this eccentric man to perfection, inhabiting the character as only he can. The acting talent extends to the two lead women in the film as well: Vicky Krieps plays Alma, Reynolds’s new flame and muse and Lesley Manfield plays Cyril, his sister and main confidant. These three are a tour de force.

Like many of Anderson’s films, Phantom Thread delves deep into a strange world, never afraid to look under all the rocks. The film is replete with strong character study elements, especially with regards to Alma, Reynolds, and their peculiar relationship. And, though the plot has a bizarre tone to it that might leave some viewers wondering what it is all about, between the sumptuous dresses, great colors and decadent shots, Phantom Thread is a wonderful film to look at.

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Phantom Thread features a deceptively simple plot. Reynolds Woodcock is a great dressmaker. He’s an obsessive perfectionist. He’s also a seminal genius in the world of dressmaking. Early on, he dumps his current Young Thing girlfriend. He delivers an exquisite dress and goes for a drive to his family’s place in the countryside where he meets Alma. Alma becomes his new Young Thing, his muse, and his inspiration. At first, she acquiesces to all of his peccadilloes, but eventually Alma pushes back. The remainder of the film follows the growth of their relationship and all of the strange places it goes.

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Reynolds, Alma and Cyril form the crux of this story, and the performances are all up to the task. In Reynolds, Daniel Day Lewis perfectly captures that peculiar mixture of dedication to a craft and fanatical passion that adds up to genius. At the same time, his ego bruises easily and he almost delights in working himself to the ground.

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Alma loves being the source of Reynolds’s inspiration, and aggressively protects her place in the house. She even manages to convince Reynolds to ask for her hand in marriage (though she does have to poison him with some mushrooms first). Yeah, more on that later.

Though Cyril could very easily be a throwaway character, a doting over-protective sister trying to push girls out the door, here she is far more nuanced. She befriends and respects Alma, really looking out for her even though their heads might butt every now and then. And, she may be the only other person on the world who can actually stand up to Reynolds.

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Playing to the strengths of these performers, the storytelling is driven by the acting and visuals. There’s a loose framing element involving Alma speaking to some kind of therapist about her relationship with Reynolds, so we learn a lot of information directly from Alma through this confessional. Some of the most rousing scenes are confrontation between the characters. Lesley Manfield has two separate jaw-dropping moments with Daniel Day Lewis where she completely holds her own opposite this icon. Ditto Vicky Krieps – she has some tense moments with Reynolds, some that get incredibly dark and weird, but she is game for it. Anderson got some absurd performances here, and Phantom Thread owes much of its success to these performances.

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Meanwhile, the film is gorgeous to behold. There is opulence and decadence at every turn, and I know practically nothing about dresses. The high society feeling is capture in costuming, set design, and even the cinematography, which feels particularly rich and interesting. But it has nothing on one of the more bizarre plot turns in recent memory.

Spoilers here, obviously, but I seriously doubt that too many people who would care to remain spoiler-free haven’t seen Phantom Thread already. As previously mentioned, when Reynolds starts to grow weary of Alma, she decides to poison him a little with some mushrooms. Bed-ridden and entirely dependent on Alma, Reynolds sees visions of his long-dead mother and comes to the realization that he wants to marry Alma. Things go well for a while, but they don’t seem to be entirely compatible. For instance, Alma is excited to go to a New Year’s Eve party, while Reynolds thinks such things are silly. They yell and fight some, and Alma goes to make an omelet with her famous secret ingredient mushrooms. Only this time, Reynolds is more suspicious, and it is almost as though his very gaze prompts Alma into a confession: I want you weak, sick, just enough to depend on me, and then I want you to get better and tackle the world, with me by your side. Reynolds grins from ear to ear, and tucks into his poisoned omelet. It’s the most romantic act from Reynolds in the entire film.

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This is some serious Secretary stuff, a power struggle wrapped up in the world of Dominance and Submission. In the moment, it feels like it comes out of left field, but if you think back to the relationship between Reynolds and Alma, you start to recognize that Alma’s mushrooms are merely the most explicit example of this behavior. One could probably spend pages discussing the specific psychologies of Alma and Reynolds (and, to a lesser extent, Cyril).

Phantom Thread will certainly run some spectators the wrong way. The relationships in this movie are strange and unconventional in almost every aspect. The plot is a slow burn that allows the characters to establish themselves and interact, and the ending is abrupt and a tad off-putting, especially at first. All that being said, the writing is astounding, the performances absolutely impeccable, and the film looks gorgeous. Though it contains zero Fish Creatures, Phantom Thread is one of the most distinctive and impressive films from the past year.

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