I’ve found it hard to sit down and write about Phantom Thread, and I’m not altogether sure why. I think it’s because I don’t know what to make of it – it is one of the most peculiar movies I’ve ever watched. For a start, what is it – a drama, a dark comedy, a psycho-sexual thriller?
Set in 1955, the movie is beautifully shot on film rather than digital with long lingering shots of stairwells as the artisans troop up and down each day creating glamourous dresses for the well-born and well-monied. The story opens as Reynolds is preparing to ditch his current muse for the hideous crime of caring too deeply about his bread rolls (just one of the many food crimes his muses commit). Food plays more of a role in the movie than the somewhat stiff and dull, even in 1955, dress designs that Roderick whips up for his customers. In fact, that would have made better focus – an artist realising his artistic vision has become outdated, however, that plotline peters out like a frayed thread.
Roderick heads to the country to recover from the arduous task of getting his sister Cyril to do life’s heavy lifting for him, where he bumps into the beguiling waitress Alma in his favourite cafe. A huge meal and dress-fitting later, Alma is in residence at the chilly ‘House of Frumpy Clothes’ and the fun begins. Except it doesn’t. From the moment Reynolds wipes Alma’s lipstick off on their first date, it is apparent that he is a sociopathic, narcissistic jerk. Why would anyone engage with him just to wear some nice dresses? Or not leave when they realise?
Finally, when it seems the story is about to head in the direction of Alma gaining understanding and asserting her own power, it lurches down a weird and illogical road instead, with mushrooms as a major plot point. What are they – hobbits? The other issue I have is that it never becomes clear exactly who the main character is – Daniel Day-Lewis’ fashion designer and tortured artist Reynolds Woodcock, or naive Alma (Vickey Krieps), the latest addition to his collection of adoring muses.
The score was a tad overpowering, as if the director decided “I have violins, and goddammit, I’m going to use them”. However, the real problem is that Reynolds Woodcock has to be one of the most unpleasant protagonists to ever grace the screen. Of course, being Daniel Day-Lewis, he is all beautifully tailored elegance and charm, but he is also a bit of a drama queen with mummy issues in a co-dependent relationship with his sister, Morgana Le Fay, I mean Cyril, played by Lesley Manville.
Phantom Thread is not a story about love, or artistic passions, or self-discovery – I don’t what it is, and Paul Thomas Anderson has created such a thoroughly repulsive main character, I really didn’t care. Skip this and rewatch Last of the Mohicans instead.
Reviewed by Adrienne Kohler