Reynolds Woodcock (Day Lewis in what is rumoured to be his last role) is the toast of post-war London, the celebrated fashion designer wowing royalty and celebrities with his beautifully crafted evening gowns and dresses. Impressed that French waitress Alma (Krieps) remembers his convoluted breakfast order, Reynolds takes her to dinner and a relationship develops. But her presence in the house, headed up by Reynolds' stern sister Cyril (Manville), offsets the perfectly balanced system in place…
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest has a quiet power. The scenes flow into each other with a natural ease, the relaxed pacing ushered along by Jonny Greenwood's almost ever-present score (only on one or two occasions does the soundtrack draw attention to itself) making the running time skip by. Anderson, doubling up as cinematographer, ensures that his shots mimic the detail Reynolds puts into his designs. It's a beautiful film to look at. Intoxicating at times.
But as pretty as the clothes and the shots and the music are this is a character study and Reynolds Woodcock is as fascinating as he is monstrous. Everything – from work to food to love – is on his terms. He sees Alma as a blank canvas to be adorned as he sees fit: "You have no breasts. It is my job to give you some… if I choose to." He removes her lipstick on their first date, admonishes her for 'moving too much' at breakfast and when she cooks a surprise dinner he refuses to eat it because she cooked the asparagus in butter, not oil, like he wants/demands.
Where is Alma in all this? Why does she get out of such a subservient role? Well, she understands that the dress is everything and nothing else matters. She agrees that the lucky recipient must deserve the garment - the time it took to make it, the attention to detail he gave it – and God help those who disrespect his art. It's her idea to barge into the bridal suite of drunken socialite Barbara Rose (a wonderful and all too brief turn appearance from Harriet Sansom Harris), who has the temerity to fall asleep in the dress, and rescue it.
And then there's Cyril (Manville once again in terrific form). In a relationship that behaves like a chaste love affair Cyril is jealous of the women that occupy Reynolds' time. When Reynolds has disrobed Alma on their first date to make a dress for her, Cyril suddenly appears and all sexual tension flies out of the scene. What was potentially erotic becomes a regular fitting: professional, cold, invasive. Cyril occupies a seat to take notes, staring at the half-naked woman with a detached coolness that says she’s the one in control here.
And Phantom Thread is about control, and the unwillingness to surrender it. Alma is the titular errant fibre, the one tiny element that throws everything off kilter. Order in Reynolds’ world induces creativity but he subconsciously needs chaos … and Alma subconsciously wants to be its harbinger. When others tiptoe around Reynolds’ moods, she doesn’t balk at calling him a "spoilt little baby," and she says it with a smile. In what is a subtle development their roles slowly switch.