I’m usually skeptical of artists announcing their retirement when they’re neither terminally ill nor really old. (See: Soderbergh, Steven and Miyazaki, Hayao.) However, I’m inclined to believe Daniel Day-Lewis when he says it, because the actor has always had a tortured relationship with his profession, going back to the 1980s, when he suffered a nervous breakdown during a stage performance of Hamlet. We may see him again on the big screen one day, but if Phantom Thread is indeed his last bow, this utterly chilling romantic drama is a satisfying way to go out.
He plays Reynolds Woodcock — what, would the name “Hardpenis” have been too obvious? Anyway, he’s a London couturier in the 1950s whose dresses adorn movie stars and royalty. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson starts the film off in Reynolds’ atelier, where a countess (Gina McKee) comes in to be fitted for a sharply stylish ball gown. Between the gorgeous fabrics, Jonny Greenwood’s lush music, Anderson’s discreet camera movements as the workers file in and start their work, and Day-Lewis’ careful gestures as Reynolds rises from bed to present himself to his customer, this feels like the sort of movie you want to just lay back and luxuriate in.
But it’s a trap. When Reynolds takes a liking to an unassuming younger waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps), she discovers how suffocating his perfectionism and eye for detail can be. Nothing must disturb the great man’s daily routine –– he’ll scream at you if you butter your toast too loud at the breakfast table. When his sister (Lesley Manville) drops the word “chic” around him, it sets him off on a lengthy and venomous rant: “Whoever invented that word should be fucking killed.” Reynolds wants Alma to be like an umbrella, there when he needs her and out of the way at all other times. Eventually, she winds up taking extreme, illegal measures just to get him to slow his roll.
Anderson shines in some set pieces, like the brutal, snowballing comedy of Reynolds stewing silently at a party while a wealthy socialite (Harriet Sansom Harris) gets progressively more hammered while wearing one of his dresses. Yet the heart of the movie is in this poisonous marriage that’s even more messed-up than the one in Gone Girl. You won’t be surprised that Day-Lewis excels as an overbearing artiste, but you might very well be impressed by Krieps, a fresh-faced newcomer from Luxembourg who finds this character’s wherewithal to survive the monster in her life by becoming a monster herself. Amid all the trappings of beauty and fine things, this noxious relationship gives the film its lethal energy. Take a bite out of Phantom Thread, and you’ll find a coating of the finest chocolate concealing a center of powdered glass.
Starring Vicky Krieps and Daniel Day-Lewis. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Rated R.