Writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson’s dark, brooding horror-comedy Phantom Thread lets you in on its essential theme in the opening shots. Drawings and pictures of elegant women’s clothes from when women wore clothes that accentuate the female figure appear. Then, comes a preview of the point of the movie: a musical note (well, what the audience is supposed to discern as a musical note, anyway) which becomes a loud, irritating audio distortion which can only be described as noise.
Sonic assault fits the darkly comic, ponderous soap opera film. Phantom Thread invites you for its sumptuous designs and treats you to dastardly deconstruction. All this while masquerading as an important movie with something important to show and say about the artisan and his creations, romantic relationships and life. “It’s comforting to think that the dead are watching over us,” one character says as plainly as possible in this frank exercise in depicting an eccentric fashion designer’s days and nights.
This is as profound as Phantom Thread gets.
The lead character, a designer named Reynolds Woodcock, is portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Lincoln, The Last of the Mohicans) in his first role since 2012’s surprisingly good Lincoln. It’s also his re-teaming with Anderson, with whom he worked on the similarly campy and utterly empty 2007 diatribe against capitalism, There Will Be Blood. This time, Anderson (Magnolia) carefully lays out his case against the creator in finer strokes.
The result is as cutting and comical as that other film, intentionally or not. Day-Lewis, in what he says is his final movie performance, is toned down, letting co-stars and the movie’s other central parts — costumes, score, cinematography — shine. And they do, they really do. Pictures from the back of a car traveling to an idyllic hotel overlooking the waterfront take the audience into a new and inviting world of dressmaking and design. The dresses, threading and stitching are lavishly featured in 70mm. Jonny Greenwood’s mostly nonstop musical score distracts from the nothingness as intended. Vicky Krieps (A Most Wanted Man) as a clumsy, young waitress half Woodcock’s age delivers an even performance, portraying a woman who turns good fortune into a wicked, conniving and manipulative act of sadism. Lesley Manville (Mr. Turner) stands out as the designer’s arch accomplice.
Though it touches on sexual perversion and what it means to take advantage of a delusional man of ability putting woman on a pedestal, which might have made an interesting cultural and character study, ultimately Phantom Thread is putting us on. The put-on starts with Woodcock’s syrupy come-on lines to the waif — he removes her red lipstick on a creepy first date with “now, there’s the real you” and later has her caked in red lipstick for fashion modeling — and cascades down from there. Factor Woodcock’s seriously disturbing mother complex into this puzzle, too, and midway through Phantom Thread, you start to wonder if this is another remake of Psycho. But Kriep’s waif, who apparently has no family and nothing else to do, schemes her way to fulfilling the masochist’s unspoken fantasy.
Costumes, transitions and pacing are fine. Harriet Sansom Harris (Bebe on Frasier) does a wonderful turn as a patroness of the arts in a pivotal plot point. Scenes of Woodcock at work, which means thinking, drawing and dressmaking, are well done. A running joke about his intolerance for distraction lightens the mood. But, from the nubile waif’s early reference to the sixtysomething designer as a boy to the final scenes of complicity in sado-masochism as Anderson’s view of romantic love, Phantom Thread‘s master-pupil depiction too pertly delivers its vacant point that, in the end, everyone gets all dressed up with no where to go.