Paul Thomas Anderson’s films tend to be awash in excess, whether it’s a volcanically rage-filled Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk-Love, the sex-and-drugs soaked tableaus of Boogie Nights, or the sociopathic explosions of violence in There Will Be Blood. So it’s a bit of a surprise that Phantom Thread is so restrained — a relationship drama set amidst the 1950s fashion scene, and in prim-and-proper London no less. And yet, it soon becomes apparent that in spite of the movie’s genteel surface-trappings, the emotions bubbling just beneath are equally explosive.
The relationship between the obsessive fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and the shy waitress who captivates him, Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps), unfolds like a tango between artist and muse, at least at first. Despite her thoroughly ordinary circumstances, something about Alma captures the imagination of the fashion genius, all as his quietly controlling sister and business partner (Lesley Manville) looks on. But Alma isn’t so sure she wants to be a muse, and is hardly the passive vessel the title implies.
A character study like this lives and dies by its performances. It goes without saying that Daniel Day-Lewis is excellent in the main role. The character is charming and infuriating in equal measure; an asparagus-related temper tantrum is one for the ages. He is a textbook male control-freak, enraged by the presence of a woman who firmly asserts her will. But Day-Lewis’s performance is more than that. He could have simply been a petulant man-child, yet instead we see that he is also an artist at work. We come to understand how much he invests in his art, and how his controlling nature isn’t just an expression of generic toxic masculinity, but also an expression of how much his work means to him. Lesley Manville is also subtly brilliant in her performance as a woman who leads from behind the curtain. Even when she takes on the role as second-banana to her brother in public, her brittle authority hangs over every interaction, making us question who is truly the more powerful of the two.
But one naturally expects great things from these two veteran actors. The real surprise is Vicky Krieps, as the object of affection. She starts as the clichéd younger woman in the thrall of an older lover. But she grows to assert her agency throughout the film, to the point that the courtship begins to resemble a power struggle more than a romance. A particularly impressive scene is one in which Alma actively rejects her role as passive muse, openly criticizing the works she has supposedly inspired. Krieps’s character is always thinking and always watching, resulting in a performance of enormous intelligence and depth.
Acting aside, every film frame is absolutely gorgeous, but never in an overly-sanitized-period-piece way, which is fitting, considering that there is nothing refined about the inner turmoil of the lives on display. It’s a curious movie — it takes the form of a romance, but turns it into something chilly and remote. Most love stories require some form of fantasy, but Anderson’s characters are too smart to blindly accept this illusion. Phantom Thread is a rare movie about a romance that never swoons, and never stops thinking. And we get the sense that the participants wouldn’t have it any other way.