Bad behaviour is always in fashion in this intoxicatingly strange film. If it is Day-Lewis’ swansong, then it’s a masterful bow.
Much like the hidden messages couturier Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) sews into the seams of the sublime designs in which he swathes his upper class female clients, Paul Thomas Anderson’s eighth dramatic feature Phantom Thread was shrouded in mystery from the outset.
Revealing little more than Day-Lewis’ assertion that this would be his final bow as an actor, the resulting movie shifts like ruffled silk from period chamber piece, to an examination of fraught sexual politics, to a low-key thriller shot through with sensuously kinky humour. I’ll keep its secrets as close to my chest as the missives he stitches unknown into his dainty hems.
Set in the 1950s, Woodcock is not a man who follows fashion. A confirmed bachelor – without that being code – he’s an unbending and quite insidious patriarchal figure who enforces his vaulted vision on the frames of the rich patrons he scathingly views as beneath him. In this snooty endeavour he has able assistance in Cyril (an arch Lesley Manville), his glacially unimpressed business partner. Rigidly protective of both his and The House of Woodcock’s reputation, she’s thoroughly unimpressed by irksome female intrusions on his attentions; so much so one suspects a former dalliance between them, jealously guarded. Though their true bond is gradually teased, its revelation only adds to the strangely twisted nature of this suffocating atelier.
One such temporary intruder to their grand townhouse home and headquarters defeats herself through the unthinkable crime of buttering her toast too loudly. Cyril despatches her with cool precision, but soon afterwards a professionally wounded Woodcock retreats to his seaside bolthole and falls for yet another.
Alma (a magnificent pairing for Day-Lewis is in the inscrutable Vicky Krieps) is an immigrant hotel worker of unspecified European origin who, much like her prior counterparts, falls madly into the sway of his sartorial tyranny as abused muse.
But this time the Woodcocks may have met their match. A confounding mix of eager submission paired with a determination to stamp her mark on their business, Krieps is a force to be reckoned with alongside the seasoned Day-Lewis. A power game erupts in which all three players push and pull, their troubled union fraying at the edges and then re-stitched in subtly different styles.
A study in truly odious behaviour, their ridiculous manoeuvres are quite mesmerising. Shot on glorious 35mm celluloid, Anderson’s care for detail – as writer, director and cinematographer – is as exquisite as the ball gowns Woodcock conjures for visiting royalty, in reality crafted by long-term costume designer Mark Bridges.
As a Hitchcockian war of asparagus and mushroom-related attrition escalates and the plot takes a turn for the gothic, replete with bubbling cauldrons and life-altering potions, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood pushes the needle deeper with a piercing orchestral score.
A wilfully strange and tricksy film, it is a devious delight to lose oneself in its crushing blow, artfully wrapped in velvet.
Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords