Have to admit this straight out: know nothing about fashion or clothes. I'd repeat that in Andrew Sach's approximation of a Basque accent but for the record and to get it out of the way when it comes to couture and textile and clothing design I know nothing. Nada.
Imagine my relief when Paul Thomas Anderson declares that his latest feature Phantom Thread isn't about fashion either; it's about obsession, about an artist's insistence on the primacy of his work, and a woman's need for space and significance (In relation to a man? Knotty question), about the constant struggle within a man to be either an inspired creative mind or a total pain in the ass. Probably a combination of or variation on both.
O it's also about Daniel Day-Lewis' announcement that this would be his final performance on the big screen, so when he plays the role of Reynolds Woodcock, a fussy hermetically sealed designer who insists on choosing his own models and lovers (usually the same woman), who likes to hide secret messages in his creations (shades of Alexander McQueen, who reportedly sewed an obscene message into the lining of a jacket for Prince Charles), and who (tho he never actually comes out and says it) prefers his women to butter their toasts silently--well you have to assume Day-Lewis is making some kind of statement.
Wouldn't know for certain; it's the kind of stuff more thoroughly discussed in magazine articles and web pages. Watching the film I'm aware of the momentous nature of this, Day-Lewis' Final Acting Challenge: he's reasonably mobile with no clubbed foot (translate: obvious award fodder) in sight--if there's anything the matter with his character it's inside. His world is perfect his lifestyle perfect his work--which earns his bread and quietly spread butter--perfect to the last stitch and perfectly static. Time for a change.
Enter Alma (Vicky Krieps) and has anyone note how Anderson seems to enjoy tweaking our noses with his characters' names? There Will Be Blood's Daniel Plainview couldn't be more obvious; Reynolds Woodcock? Fuhgeddaboudit. Alma in Spanish means 'soul,' suggesting what she brings to the Woodcock household.
Anyway enter Alma and she's shy and clumsy at first which draws Reynolds to her side; he invites her to dinner, invites her to become his latest lover/model. Alma after a brief pause agrees with a smile. Krieps keeps it all admirably simple mysterious luminescent: a combination of the naive and the guarded, an innocent harboring depths--a plain cotton dress if you like with sharp needles hidden away here there.
Alma does have to contend with Reynolds' sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) who recalls a more understated Mrs. Danvers by way of Madame Sebastian (maybe with a touch of Clara Thornhill tossed in the mix). Manville isn't as vivid as any of these characters alas, tho the actress seems more than capable; she's conceived to be a foil to Alma, and someone the girl can observe for clues as to how to crack open the inner workings of Reynolds' mind.
If I'm throwing names from Hitchcock films at you that's deliberate. Anderson doesn't really attempt (unlike say De Palma) to pay homage by evoking any of the master's many memorable shots (though there is that giant closeup of Reynold's eye peering into a peephole). This director seems more interested in creating an analogous feel--the atmosphere of romance and repression, guilt and lust--through his own more deliberately style.
At a certain point you want to ask: if we're channeling Hitchcock why not do it properly? An eerily illuminated glass of milk, a window frame in the shape of a spider web, a crane shot diving down into Alma's tightly clenched fist? Anderson seems to be after different game (Skip the rest of this paragraph if you plan to see the film!): think Suspicion only with Hitchcock's original ending restored, or love (after some sturm und drang) resolving itself on more perverse terms. Hitchcock never quite managed anything this quietly twisted; it took De Palma (or so Pauline Kael would claim) to realize the master's more extreme fantasies. Not necessarily a good thing but here I submit it works: a case may be made that Reynolds is in a creative rut, that his clothes aren't as innovative as those of his contemporaries (Balenciaga comes to mind), and that a change in circumstances--say a change in the power dynamics between him and his women--is just the cuppa he needs to sip to get his juices flowing. Diarrhea is only one known side effect of Alma's mushrooms--could they also have hallucinogenic properties (Doesn't Reynolds see his mother at one point?)? And might that help somehow?
Arguably the film's most serious flaw (as critic David Ehrenstein puts it) is its attempt at straightwashing the famous designers of the period--again I'll plead little to no knowledge on the issue; I think it works as a straight romance, and will readily admit the film probably fails at depicting the real period.
Which hasn't stopped Anderson from going ahead, or me from enjoying his works warts and all. I'm taking this particular cup gingerly, conscious of what it is and what it fails to do: as one of Anderson's fussy hermetically sealed exercises in style (which when you think about brings him a step closer to the work of that other Anderson, assembler of elaborate ultraconscious film aquariums). One of the better more entertaining if not entirely accurate films of last year--but what do I know? I wear clothes mainly to avoid from being arrested, myself.
First published in Businessworld 7.20.18