Though the loves and life of a high fashion dress designer in London of the 1950s is the subject of ‘Phantom Thread’, the movie is an elaborate showcase for the method acting of the reclusive actor, Daniel Day-Lewis. Latterly, he has been diverting his obsessional skills from acting to woodworking and shoemaking, so playing a dress designer, with all the requisite sewing, stitching and measuring skills, practised to perfection, is easy for him. He is perfectly cast as the fictional British dressmaker, Reynolds Woodcock, famed for dressing the rich and famous in England and Europe.
Like the celebrated Spanish virtuoso of haute couture, Cristóbal Balenciaga, from whom the character is clearly inspired, Woodcock was much attached to his late mother. She was a seamstress who taught and influenced him to take up her trade. She is the phantom in ‘Phantom Thread’, who frequently appears to Woodcock in his dreams, and whom he once sees standing near the doorway, when he is in bed and hallucinating with a high fever. He speaks to the vision of his dead mother and wonders why he cannot hear her voice. What does she want to say to him? What important news does she have for him? As he mumbles these question deliriously to the vision, the door opens and his live-in partner, Alma (Vicky Krieps), enters. The Freudian implications of this scene are striking and it is the most affecting one in the film, perhaps the only one in this dryly spoken situational drama, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.
Shortly after this scene, Woodcock proposes marriage to Alma, and she accepts, with, presumably, his mother’s approval and blessing. There is a sister too, Cyril (Leslie Manville), very much alive, who manages Woodcock’s business and home. Her job is to keep his daily routine ticking in compulsive order. Breakfast is sacred, and if anything goes wrong then, the whole day is ruined. So Alma must butter her toast silently; and if she can’t, must breakfast elsewhere. Home and work function to Woodcock’s orders, and the efficiency of his sister’s execution of them. But Alma, too, wants her way with the man she loves, and decides to set the order differently, which drives the highly strung artist insane. It is like the bear in the zoo, who, after years of walking to and fro, is suddenly asked to walk fro and to.
Enraged at his daily order being reversed, he accuses Alma of sabotaging him behind enemy lines, a pointed reference to her European origins (prominently displayed in her Continental accent). These scenes of his cranky and authoritarian personality do not result in turning into a disturbing portrait of an overpowering patriarch who is challenged for space by the woman in his life. On the contrary, the soft spoken and articulate arguments of Woodcock, justifying his paranoia, only end up as an unintentionally funny account of a dysfunctional and wealthy family in England. Something that Peter Sellers could do rather well, in his time.
The sets of ‘Phantom Thread’ are elaborate and detailed, but the story and script are up to nothing significant. A man and a woman, both with strong personalities, can live together, but only if they can develop a mechanism to work out their power equations. Otherwise, the relationship will flounder. This seems to be the only, and obvious, theme of the movie, and it wears thin over the duration.
What we are left with are the dresses and the dressmaking, but here too the film disappoints. For a master designer, the dresses that Woodcock and his team of lady seamstresses develop, look quite ornate and laboured. Even the wedding dress that he makes for a European Princess, does not stand out. It is not eye catching at all, and looks quite dated, even for the 1950s. All in all, this film may well be a low point in the oeuvre of Paul Thomas Anderson.