Phantom Thread is about sovereign artistic control and perfectionism, which means that, on some level, it's about the process of its own making. Does that make it irrelevant to our world right now? Perhaps, and it's easy to understand why writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's lengthy film about love and dressmaking has been rarely in the awards conversation — unlike, say, his There Will Be Blood, which many interpreted as a commentary on the rapacious politics of oil.
Set in white-gloved 1950s London, this is a much more surfacely sedate film — one that, like its hero, is obsessed with detail. "Phantom threads" are messages that celebrated dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) stitches into hidden corners of a garment: invisible directives that, to him, have totemic power. Like everything in his life, they must be just so.
But this is still an Anderson movie, which means that, by the film's end, the order of Reynolds' existence will have been perturbed in ways he could never have imagined. Whether his life has been thus perverted or perfected depends on your point of view.
It starts with a romance we may feel we've seen too many times before. Alma (Vicky Krieps) meets Reynolds when she takes his breakfast order. Decades younger, she's eager to serve as his muse and model. On their first date, Alma obediently stands immobile while Reynolds measures and fits her. But she also tells him, "If you want to have a staring contest with me, you will lose."
Indeed, the placid, spacey young woman soon reveals herself to be far less malleable than she seems. The film is a sort of leisurely romantic duel between Reynolds and Alma, with the dressmaker's sister and live-in assistant (a formidable Lesley Manville) offering ambiguous support to both sides.
No one will be stunned to learn that Day-Lewis creates a compelling, multifaceted character, driven and domineering one moment and melancholy and childlike the next. The surprise may be how well Krieps matches him, combining playfulness with a stubbornness that makes Alma fully capable of staring down her lover. Ordinarily, one might fault the script for telling us nothing about Alma's past, but Krieps makes her moment-to-moment motivations so clear, there's no hint of the stock femme fatale.
Anderson has crafted a setting as immersive as one of Reynolds' sumptuous evening dresses: warm, ruddy interior light; overripe floral prints; rooms still stuffed with Victorian bric-a-brac. A private fashion show is directed with the precision and panache of a musical number; a tracking shot through a raucous New Year's Eve ball is a tour de force. Jonny Greenwood's score evokes the salad days of midcentury melodrama, yet hints of dissonance and conflict lurk at the edges.
In Anderson's last feature, Inherent Vice (2014), Thomas Pynchon's text overwhelmed the on-screen action; here he seems to have returned to a more productive balance of the spoken and the unspoken. What better subject for a formal perfectionist than another formal perfectionist?
The film outlines an age-old conflict for creative people, and not just for them: How much chaos can I safely allow into my life? In Darren Aronofsky's horror-tinged Mother!, which asked the same question, the answer was "none." Phantom Thread arrives at a more upbeat but, in some ways, even creepier conclusion. It lulls us into wanting to live in its world, then dares to suggest that every successful relationship has a phantom thread of shared madness running through it.