Phantom Thread, the latest film written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, The Master) is an intense, beautifully-crafted meditation on creativity and obsession. Said to be Daniel Day-Lewis’s final film before he retires (he has stated this is the case and he’s not given to changing his mind), the film explores the relationship between a man and the women in his life through the lens of a couture house in London in the 1950s. This eye-wateringly sumptuous setting also provides the backdrop for an examination of the nature of creativity and the persona and habits of a creative individual.
DDL plays Reynolds Woodcock, an English couturier to society ladies, princesses and dames. He is fastidious to the point of ridiculousness (and this makes for some wonderful comic set pieces, usually over breakfast). Effete, almost autistically-obsessive and buttoned-up, he rules his workshop and fashion studio with a hawk-like eye for detail and a violent distaste for anything considered “chic”.
The women in his life are the ladies in his workshop who sew and create the dresses he designs, Cyril, his sister and business partner (played by Lesley Manville with a masterfully cool acerbity and authority) and Alma (Vicky Krieps), a pretty young waitress whom he meets at a country hotel and who becomes his muse. Over time, Alma determines to unbutton Reynolds via a sequence of weird and dysfunctional Hitchockian schemes which bring a piquant ambiguity to the narrative right up to the close of the film.
It’s a delicious feast for the eyes, not least the surreally-beautiful gowns which are paraded through the film, and the scenes of 1950s London. DDL inhabits the role fully – just as he did in There Will Be Blood – with a brooding intensity, impossibly controlling and exquisitely bizarre in his appearance, manner and attitudes. The overall feeling throughout the film is one of claustrophobia and neurosis. For example, Reynolds’ intolerance of noise at breakfast when he is trying to sketch new designs, hints at the unsociability and almost pretentious meticulousness of the creative person (traits which I have observed in musicians, writers and artists).
The lavish visual impact and unsettling narrative of the film is further enhanced by the score by Jonny Greenwood, who has worked with Paul Thomas Anderson before, which perfectly captures both the period of the piece (lush, silky strings, touches of popular jazz and dance music) and the obsessive atmosphere – unsettling dissonances, minimalist loops, slithering harmonies, itchy anxious strings, Baroque statements and Messiaen-esque timbres, spiky harp sounds and pearly droplets of piano notes. I was fortunate enough to see a preview of the film with a live score, performed by the London Contemporary Orchestra, which brought film and score to life with an immediacy made the viewing even more concentrated, as if in a state of heightened reality.
Phantom Thread is strange, beautiful, unpredictable, bizarre, poised and Gothic, very much deserving of its standing ovation at the Royal Festival Hall last night, and its Oscar nominations.
Phantom Thread opens in the UK on 2 February 2018