Phantom Thread is the second film to come out this fall in which a tortured artist puts his work above all else, including the love of a beautiful, devoted woman. In the case of Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, which arrived in September, the story was treated as both extended metaphor and surreal fever dream, inciting profoundly visceral responses in the viewer. But with Phantom Thread, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson has produced a sedate, rather passionless look at a similar subject that continues the filmmaker’s recent predilection for making films that remain curiously unengaged with the audience on any number of levels, including emotional.
Don’t get me wrong: Phantom Thread has many things going for it, including a typically detailed and meticulous performance from Daniel Day-Lewis (which he says is his last), fabulous production design and cinematography, a haunting score from Jonny Greenwood, and a marvelous supporting turn from Lesley Manville. There are also nice bits of humor sprinkled throughout the film, much more than one might expect initially. But the core of the movie–the relationship between Day-Lewis as fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock and Luxembourgian actress Vicky Krieps as his lover/muse/tormentor–never really rises beyond a pseudo-Gothic tit-for-tat that lacks electricity.
It’s the 1950s, and Woodcock is the dressmaker to the upper echelons of London society, working out of his magnificent townhouse with an army of assistants presided over by his devoted sister Cyril (Manville). The latter runs the house and the business like a tight ship; even the women who provide brief sojourns of companionship for Reynolds are treated like employees and dismissed when no longer needed. That is until Reynolds meets a waitress named Alma (Krieps) on a weekend seashore retreat. Smitten on sight, he brings her into his controlled and ordered life only for her to become a more disruptive influence than he ever imagined, with his health and business hanging in the balance.
That makes Phantom Thread sound a lot more exciting and juicy than it actually is. While Day-Lewis is excellent, he doesn’t quite let us under Reynolds’ skin; he’s a collection of tics and eccentricities more than a fully-rounded character. Asked by Alma why he’s never married, he only laughs. We get the sense that he really only lives for his work, which makes the attraction to Alma all the more perplexing. Krieps seems passive-aggressive throughout, even in one surprising sequence where the film almost takes a turn into thriller territory. It’s a strange sequence that opens the door for Phantom Thread to plunge into darker, more perverse realms, but Anderson never quite gets there.
There’s very little chemistry in the relationship between Day-Lewis’ Woodcock and Krieps’ Alma; Reynolds, in fact, seems mostly asexual when he isn’t losing his temper or petulantly making demands of everyone around him. Some of this is funny, as in the scene where every little scrape of Alma’s butter knife against her toast (for which Anderson eagerly turns up the volume) claws at Reynolds’ nerves like an unwelcome visitor scratching at a window. But most of the scenes following their initial courtship of elegant dining and frolicking, it’s hard to understand just why the hell these two are together, especially given the grimmer turn their relationship takes.
Perhaps that’s the point: that we don’t always know why we end up staying with someone despite all the evidence that we need to break away. That would be a much more interesting theme if Reynolds didn’t come across as largely an asshole from the start; he’s a man who needs complete and utter obedience from everyone around him while he’s working, lest his delicate creative impulses are derailed and his day is ruined. As Cyril notes, if Reynolds’ breakfast doesn’t go well, his whole day is thrown off. (Manville is dryly marvelous here and is perhaps the secret star of the movie.)
As lovely as the film is, as delightful as it is musically and visually (Anderson and his crew really do fill the frame with a mind-boggling array of details), and as stunning as Woodcock’s dresses are (it’s probably no accident that the most passionate scene in the film is an exhibition of his latest creations during a mini-fashion show in his living room), the artist who puts his art above all else, even love, is a character that has been explored many times on film.
Day-Lewis is always mesmerizing even when he plays less empathetic characters, but ultimately Anderson adds nothing to the conversation that we haven’t seen before, noting perfunctorily that said artist doesn’t always make the right choices and that love (or a facsimile of it) can be both inspirational and destructive to the work at hand. With characters as childish as Reynolds and Alma end up being, that’s not a thread we care enough to pull.
Phantom Thread is out in theaters on Dec. 25.