No one could accuse filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson of a lack of ambition. His new movie Phantom Thread aspires to present an insider’s look at the ritzy, exclusive world of international haute couture, grafted onto a battle-of-the-sexes melodrama about a cranky artiste and his stubborn muse struggling for control of their fractious relationship. There are moments of intrigue and interest—mostly in the pleasure of watching star Daniel Day-Lewis act—but Anderson never manages to stitch all of the pattern pieces into a seamless whole.
Set in London in the postwar 1950s, the story revolves around fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis), whose clients include celebrities, royalty, and obscenely wealthy dowagers. An “incurable bachelor” of a certain age, Reynolds is a man of strict routines; the business of the formidable House of Woodcock is handled by his crisply efficient sister Cyril (a terrific Lesley Manville), who maintains the atmosphere of peace and quiet that Reynolds needs to work. Her duties include giving her brother a gentle nudge to move on whenever his current mistress becomes tiresome.
After delivering an important gown to a countess, Reynolds motors down to his country house for some R&R. In a seaside cafe, he meets fresh-faced, ever-so-charmingly-gauche Alma (Vicky Krieps) waiting tables. He asks her out to dinner, a bizarre first date that includes him taking her home, stripping her to be fitted for a gown-in-progress, and taking all of her most intimate measurements. Turns out she’s his “perfect shape” (not too busty). Next thing we know, he’s moving her into his London townhouse.
Here, the mechanics of the plot start to get a little hazy; Alma models in his private showroom sometimes, but otherwise, she wanders around in the same antiseptic white uniform his staff of seamstresses wear. The points by which her position is gradually upgraded to new mistress are ticked off cleanly enough, but we never feel an emotional connection between them. Which becomes a problem when, once she’s ensconced, persnickety Reynolds starts finding fault with everything she does, from consuming her breakfast too noisily to arguing with him about his taste.
The problem with this so-called love story is that we have no idea who Alma is‚ or what she wants, and neither does Anderson. She has a vaguely European accent (Krieps is from Luxembourg), but she’s given no backstory, and apparently has no family or friends, or life of her own. Compliant at first (almost all she says in her first few scenes is “yes”), she only starts to grow a spine when it’s convenient for Anderson to set her up in opposition to Reynolds’ perfectly ordered world.
Reynolds, of course, has plenty of backstory, from the deceased, adored mother, to whom he still feels spiritually connected, to his habit of sewing secret messages into the lining of his gowns. But beneath his veneer of elegant charm, he’s also vicious and belittling. It’s never clear what Alma is getting emotionally from this abusive match-up; by the time she finally exclaims she’s tired of “waiting around for you to get rid of me,” the audience can’t figure out why she’s still there. The solution she dreams up to her dilemma does give the story sort of a nifty, perverse kick in the late innings, but it’s not really enough to justify all of the effort we’ve put into it.
Meanwhile, Anderson mines the haute couture milieu to try to keep our attention. There’s tactile pleasure in the way the camera fawns over antique lace and voluptuous fabrics, or noses among the corps of veteran seamstresses hand-sewing an extravagant gown. (It’s a nice touch that Anderson casts many now-matronly women who actually did sew for the great fashion houses of the ’50s as Reynolds’ seamstresses.)
There are moments of sly, subversive wit, as Reynolds and Alma bait and challenge each other—on the rare occasions when he’s not insulting or demoralizing her (and sometimes when he is). But we never become invested in these prickly characters, their relationship, or their insular world.
**1/2 (out of four)
With Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville, and Vicky Krieps. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. A Focus Features release. Rated R. 129 minutes.