DANIEL DAY LEWIS is compellingly watchable as Reynolds Woodcock, a celebrated 50’s fashion designer, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s (The Master, There Will be Blood) fabulous, multilayered story that knits together the symbiotic relationship between creativity and (almost OCD-like) control. Day Lewis’ character is a fussy, fastidious, controlling, easily angered artist whose asexual, effete airs and God complex alienate him from people and desensitise him from their feelings.
In fewer words, he’s a shit. But he’s a brilliant shit whose obsession with perfection drives a couture that aims not simply to make his chosen coterie of patrons look better but feel better about themselves. In his designs, they become, even for a fleeting moment, paragons of perfection. It’s as if his gowns (these creations were far more than mere “dresses”) – in which were stitched the phantom thread of hidden messages – enveloped its wearers with all the hopes and dreams and ambition of its creator.
The only forces reining him in, ensuring he maintain some semblance of social grace, are his frightening, controlling business manager/sister, Cyril (Leslie Manville) and the ghost of his long dead mother, cursed somehow by the wedding dress he made her when he was sixteen. Ms. Manville, with a pale mask-like face, drained of emotion and blood gives a performance almost as magnetically commanding as Day Lewis’.
It is into this claustrophobic world (most of the story is played out in the grand, if stifling, multi-room house that is at once home, show room, atelier and of course visible expression of its owner’s heart) comes Alma (Vicky Krieps). She is a slightly clumsy, affectless, elegantly beautiful waitress he comes across in a seaside hotel. Having only recently ditched his last lover/muse, Woodcock is immediately smitten. The artist and craftsman in him immediately recognise her potential to re-inspire his creativity. The man and lover follow much later. He charms her into accompanying him back to London; and his first act is to measure her near naked body with Cyril, his sister, sitting at his side noting all the measurements.
Woodcock approves of her shape: “perfect” he notes. But Alma worries aloud to Cyril, “my neck is too long…my breasts are too small…my hips are too large”. “Not at all,” Cyril replies, “you’re just his type”. The artist’s search for perfection has found its muse.
But though they may have recorded every inch of her, they fail to take her measure. After her initial obeisance (She learns how to butter her bread, cut her toast and eat in a manner that does not upset his rarified sensibilities…and his creativity) she slowly begins to assert herself. She’s a woman, not an abstract muse. And she refuses to yield to his obsessive need to perfectly shape and control his surroundings, of which she’s merely a part. Her self-assertion, her own need to exercise some sort of control parallels her involvement with his art. She becomes both his creation as well as the most steadfast defender of it. And there’s nothing an artists loves more than the pretty acolyte who worships his creativity. Slowly their one-way love becomes a two way romance. It is a (literally) poisonous romance where genuine mutual affection and passion seems to be anchored only by the electricity of the control each has over the other and the dependency that results.
Perhaps Anderson is suggesting that the antisocial, imperious control demanded of art, has its same roots in the need for control demanded of true love. They’re both fundamentally dependent upon the earthy vitality, the potentially poisonous drug of passion and chaos, for its essential sustenance and growth. Chaos, control…and love, like the two halves of Woodcock’s large home, may be at the very heart of the creative process.
From the moment we’re introduced to Woodcock to the very last frame, this is a movie that involves us in its world through the detailed intensity of its observation. We follow the director’s close, intimate lens as it focuses in on bruised, needle-damaged fingers threading those needles, caressing and lovingly stitching shapeless fabric into perfectly formed confections that ennoble and enhance their wearers. We tag along with the lens as it circles and lingers on Woodcock’s objects of desire: the neck, the arms, the lips of Alma. Anderson balances the minutia of these “observations” with the broader swoop of crowded rooms, the unseemly crush of wealthy society. We feel Woodcock and Alma’s distaste for a party crowd in a beautifully choreographed tableaux that morphs quickly from revelry to drunken riot; and their shared contempt for a society grand dame who, undeserving of his creation, passes out wearing one of his gowns.
When we relinquish control, we become animals.
Anderson, who was also his own director of photography, has shot the whole thing with the kind of subtle golden light that gives the increasingly surreal proceedings a kind of faux glamour. And the impeccable style of costume designer Mark Bridges (Jason Bourne, Captain Phillips) offers just the right patina to the mood of monied success, nicely undercut by Johnny Greenwood’s dark, brooding Dvorak-like score.
We return to Day Lewis’s performance. It is a towering one. His Woodcock is really a dreadful person, but we can’t stop watching him. In him, Day Lewis has created one of the memorable figures of the cinema. Let’s hope the Oscars recognize this.
PHANTOM THREAD. Dir/Writer/Cinematographer: Paul Thomas Anderson. With: Daniel Day Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Leslie Manville. Production Designer: Mark Tildesley (Snowdon, T2 Trainspotting)