Paul Thomas Anderson, already a man of prodigious talents, has become our foremost specialist in nonsexual romance. (Don’t tell Maya Rudolph.) To my mind, The Master (2012) is a treasure of infinite suggestiveness: an eagle with a wingspan as wide as the imagination. It grazed the appeal of religious zealotry, and its vulnerability to sham; the interplay of power and restraint in an America at the pinnacle of its century; and what same-sex attraction meant when it couldn’t be reduced to, or complicated by, letters in an ever-elongating acronym. The director’s new film, Phantom Thread, is set in England during the same middle slab of the last century. He drifts through the rubble of old-world mores like a fly on a rotting wall.
Once again, we land in the center of a chaste ménage à trois. Or, more precisely, at the edge, because its participants would doubtfully be in the middle of anything that isn’t woven by their respective delusions. The two closest to the center are the fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps), his protégé and muse. Hovering over the periphery is Reynolds’s spinster sister Cyril (Lesley Manville). The influence she exerts over Reynolds’s life, as his talent agent and business manager, maps to Amy Adams’s susurrant matriarch in The Master. As an index to the sibling relationship, Reynolds’s pet name for Cyril is “my little so-and-so”; that, plus the enervated tone in which it’s uttered, says a lot: if nothing else, it speaks to how inbred the British upper classes were.
Anderson’s basic attitude toward artists is less shocking than his attitudes toward cult leaders or oilmen. Shriveled by his unchecked vanity, Reynolds makes Day-Lewis’s Lincoln look like President Taft; the offense he takes at being served asparagus with butter instead of olive oil is fair indication of how he maintains his heroin chic. Apropos of nothing other than her own projections, Alma tells him, on their first date, that he’s only pretending to be strong. It isn’t much of a pretense. If a woman models one of his gowns with an inadequately tightened drawstring, he’ll sink into a depression for days. (As pretty as his work is, however, Reynolds has nothing on whoever dressed Katharine Graham. I guess Reynolds wasn’t into caftans.)
It is in the type of artist that Anderson has selected that the filmmaker reveals his own perceptiveness. There is no less democratic medium than Reynolds’s; as pretentious as they were, at least the art objects The Square hated on were displayed at a museum. Reynolds’s viewing public consists of parvenus or the peerage, and perhaps the snob-centric paparazzi—but this shouldn’t be taken to mean that he has a stitch of sympathy to spare on them. One loyal client, Barbara Rose (Harriet Sansom Harris), wears his garments like a layer cake; she ascends his staircase self-consciously, as if afraid to smear icing on his banister. Harris shows us the slim debutante sunken, dissolute, under the blubber; Reynolds sees his genius languishing on a wire hanger. It reduces Alma, his preeminent stan, to tears.
When Reynolds looks at his models’ bodies, he sees only a canvas for his work. Not so with Alma, on whom he can project his dearly (long) departed mother. He believes himself visited by her benevolent spirit. She appears to him in his agony, solid in the King Tut wedding dress he made: a Jazz Age relic and a coup for the film’s production design. Alma, playing nursemaid, displaces her, expelling the apparition to the tomb of his memory.
Choices impose a burden on Reynolds, so he only makes them once. The burden is at least as onerous for him as spotting a combination of stripes and plaid: any change of routine is a threat, a disturbance of his peace. If one were to confront or challenge his established order—whether with a surprise dinner or by the ministrations of an unwanted doctor when he’s caught his death—one would be beneath contempt. There is no other way. If one wants to be part of his retinue, one ought to know that. Even the concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel would be brought to heel.
I think it is at once cheap to observe, and inevitable to see, the career of a notoriously recessive method actor ruffled under those ascots—spun into each silken, deliberative word. There must be hours of rehearsal going into the phoneme that depressurizes the word “please” halfway through saying it, or the position of a hand as it fans across a choleric face. (Reynolds does his tailoring in a lab coat.) I am speaking not only of Day-Lewis here, but of Manville, who can keep her mien stony while modulating the tempo of her speech. When Cyril loses her temper, sentences zigzag between control and release: a thousand archers firing at once. It isn’t that she is subservient to her brother, exactly: but his vision is her faith. Mummy haunts her, too.
If Reynolds is the bogus master (the Philip Seymour Hoffman role), and Cyril his fanatical wife (Adams), Alma must be Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix): the unstable element. But whereas Freddie couldn’t fully comprehend what drew him to his master, or what drew them apart, the model understands the couturier not better than he’s able to, perhaps, but certainly better than he cares to. When they marry, it is as if Phoenix supplanted Adams. And it is by this logic that Cyril, Alma’s erstwhile ally, fades out of the film.
Thankfully, it’s not this twist alone that keeps P.T.A. from stepping on his Master toes. Phantom Thread begs the question of how much one should tolerate artists’ bad behavior, a pertinent question thanks to Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Harvey Weinstein, et al. Reynolds is swaddled in wealth and prestige, insulated from any point of contact with reality because he caters to those who can afford to ignore it. The character reminded me of Allen in particular, which may be an affront to Reynolds’s sartorial sense, but a cogent point in light of the way the filmmaker, in recent interviews, hews prissily to routine. He doesn’t need to know anything except making movies anymore, and his reputation lets him get by without even knowing that. Like Reynolds’s superstitions, Allen’s steadily productive but variable career is a talisman that guards the 82-year-old from his own mortality. The director has turned unreality into a practice because he can.
Krieps, the ruddy-faced newcomer, gets to be Reynolds’s Soon-Yi Previn. I think one’s identification shifts to her automatically, as this 34-year-old Luxembourger (no wonder Alma’s accent is unplaceable) is up against two venerable custodians of the English stage. She does remarkably well. It is clear that Alma’s shy, bumbling temperament is catalyzed by the designer, just as she stimulates his creativity. One never for a moment catches her waxing starry-eyed about his glamorous lifestyle. If he is monomaniacal about everything else, she’s monomaniacal about him. Because Krieps lets us see this early on, she lays the groundwork for how Alma changes.
Witnessing Day-Lewis’s swan song is reason enough to go see Phantom Thread. In profile, he looks like the slope-skulled puppet from the Brothers Quays’ Street of Crocodiles: accoutered as Reynolds, and humped over as if clasping a skull, he’s already donated his body to art. But I hope Anderson can cadge a few more donations out of him. He trusts his actors the way that Bennett Miller did in Foxcatcher; and if this movie seems vaporous, it is also a musk. Johnny Greenwood’s score swoons in the air, flitting from Bill Evans to Bernard Herrmann. With its diffused sunlight and rides in the country, the film is an anatomy of a specific life and times, when romance was so painstakingly realized that it rendered sex superfluous.