The seduction begins as a test. Our magnificently monikered fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) catches the eye of mousy waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps) at a quaint breakfast spot somewhere in the English countryside. Their strangely aggressive flirtation culminates with Reynolds confiscating her notepad, playfully demanding that she memorize his massive order. (He’s a man of appetites, and we'll soon learn that breakfast is an extremely serious matter for this guy.) That she can remember it all is the first but most certainly not the last time Alma will surprise us in writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread,” a film of exquisite beauty and sly perversity that is entirely unexpected.
In the two decades since Anderson erupted out of the San Fernando Valley with the melancholy crime drama “Hard Eight” and the exuberant, 1970s-set, porno carnival “Boogie Nights,” he’s made a career out of confounding expectations. Whether working on the sprawling canvases of “Magnolia” and “There Will Be Blood,” or the unknowable interiors of “The Master” and “Punch-Drunk Love,” his films are remarkably consistent in quality and theme while exercising wildly different filmmaking muscles. The youthful swagger of his early pictures has refined itself over time into a quieter, more confident command of the medium. Anderson’s impeccably choreographed trademark tracking shots have evolved into even more precisely timed close-ups.
A lot of “Phantom Thread” is shot in those kind of close-ups, as we attempt to reckon with this most peculiar romance. Reynolds is a prim and fussy workaholic who meticulously minds his routine. He designs high fashion gowns for heiresses and dowagers, and even though it’s the 1950s, he appears to have arranged his life in a manner from some earlier century. His sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) is his omnipresent assistant, and they teasingly refer to each other as “you old so-and-so.” At the film’s start we see her handling another one of the man’s muses with whom he’s grown bored. This is obviously not the first time Reynolds has had his sister break up with a girl on his behalf.
It could be the last, though, as we soon see that Alma is made of much tougher stuff than the rest of Woodcock’s women. Here’s where anyone who sees a lot of movies can be forgiven for thinking “Phantom Thread” is about to veer off into one of two equally exhausted formulas. The first being one of those narcissistic odes to the self-abnegation of capital G great artists, with our hero's tireless pursuit of perfection wreaking havoc on the emotional lives of those doomed to love him. Or you might think it’s going to be yet another film in which an old fussbudget has his perfectly ordered world turned upside down by a sprightly young damsel who teaches him how to live again.
The brilliance of Anderson’s film is that it somehow manages to sort of be both of those while sending up their soggy clichés at the very same time. This is a fiendishly funny movie, one that’s extremely self-aware and follows its own internal logic to a conclusion that makes perfect sense while being entirely mad. I laughed myself sick.
Daniel Day-Lewis has gone on record saying this is to be his last performance, but then doesn’t he say that after every movie? Reynolds Woodcock is one of our preeminent chameleon’s more restrained roles, with no room for the glorious showboating of Daniel Plainview in “There Will Be Blood” or (my favorite) Bill the Butcher in “Gangs of New York.” But this is a no less painstakingly detailed turn, with the actor’s adroit comic timing accentuating his every annoyance at gauche social graces or just people who make too much noise buttering their toast in the morning. (I told you breakfast was a big deal for this guy.) He hasn’t played such a ponce since “A Room with a View.”
I have no idea where Vicky Krieps came from, but this unknown actress somehow stands toe-to-toe with Daniel Day-Lewis and a lot of the time steals the scenes right out from under him. We learn nothing of Alma’s background or history, and it’s up to Krieps’ captivating screen presence to fill in the screenplay’s deliberate blanks. Lesley Manville is probably best known for being a shrieking Virginia ham in the films of Mike Leigh, so it’s at first shocking to see her underplaying as sister Cyril. The performance vibrates with that special, quivering intensity you get when a chronic over-actor reins it all in.
Anderson photographed “Phantom Thread” himself, but refused to take a cinematographer credit. (His "Inherent Vice" gaffer Michael Bauman is billed here as lighting cameraman, a job title cribbed from Stanley Kubrick’s pictures.) This largely interior film was shot on sumptuous 35mm, with harsh light blowing out the windows and deep shadows working the latitudes of the stock for a richly textured grain effect. He's pushed the image even further with a 70mm blow up that’s showing on only 10 screens in the country, our own Coolidge Corner Theatre being one of them.
I watched “Phantom Thread” for the first time via regular digital projection and then saw it again on 70mm at the Coolidge. The differences in light quality and visual textures almost made it feel like I was watching a different movie, so tactile were these surfaces in 70mm. After “The Master” and “The Hateful Eight,” Anderson and Quentin Tarantino have taken a lot of undeserved guff for exhibiting their indoor chamber dramas on large format film, as if such a precious resource should only be used for pretty scenery and “Dunkirk.”
Meanwhile, I’ve never seen skin tones in digital quite like the ones you see in 70mm, and the staggering richness of detail makes a film as intricately designed as “Phantom Thread” all the more enveloping an aesthetic experience. Panoramic vistas are fine for postcards, but I’m hard pressed to think of a landscape as fascinating as the faces of Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps.