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Phantom Thread

(2017) *** 1/2 R
130 min. Focus Features. Director: Paul Thomas Anderson. Cast: Vicky Krieps, Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville.

/content/films/5094/1.jpgWhat are the ties that bind, and how, and why? In the world of haute couture, these are matters of creativity and skill, of inspiration, design, and blind stitches. One might say the same of relationships, to a point: the creativity and skill of seduction, the inspiration that leads to deeper feelings, the attempt to design a functional relationship, and the phantom thread that keeps two people together. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread luxuriates in the world of fashion even as it plumbs the ever-darker depths of a mysteriously obsessive relationship.

Anderson reteams with Daniel Day-Lewis, who won one of his record-breaking three “Best Actor” Oscars for the director’s There Will Be Blood (according to Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread also marks his retirement from acting). Outstanding as ever, the English actor here embodies fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock, who caters to the rich, the famous, the connected, and the royal by designing for them the most exquisite dresses to be had in 1950s London. It is a world of perfectly put-together people—in appearance, at least.

Reportedly inspired by real-life designer Charles James, Woodcock has earned the appellation of “confirmed bachelor,” and despite the intimations of homosexuality that attend the term, he takes up, uses, and discards a steady stream of female muses. His latest, however, proves extraordinary. Waitress Alma Elson (Berlin-based actor Vicky Krieps) catches Woodcock’s attention, and she accepts an invitation to his haunted house (“It’s comforting to think that the dead are watching over the living,” Woodcock tells her, by way of further explaining why he sewed a lock of his mother’s hair into his jacket lining).

There, in a musty, cluttered attic workspace, Woodcock makes his signature move: with unnerving fastidiousness, he takes Alma’s measurements as foreplay to the ultimate flattery: designing a dress to be tailor-made for her. Shortly, Alma moves into London’s House of Woodcock, threatening the prim primacy Reynolds’ sister Cyril (a positively brilliant Lesley Manville) holds over his world. As Cyril sees it, only she understands her brother and can keep the mercurial master functioning despite behavior that can run to the childish and cruel and, more worryingly, depressive bouts that last for days.

This triangular dynamic and the classicism of Anderson’s aesthetic approach (not to mention Woodcock’s observation “A house that doesn’t change is a dead house”) call to mind Hitchcock’s initial American psychodrama Rebecca. Indeed Phantom Thread goes to perverse places, from a study of a toxic alpha male’s mistreatment of the two mistresses in his life to a depiction of a bizarrely functional, codependent, toxic relationship. Anderson makes no concession to the mass appeal of a rooting interest: his is a cinema of the esoteric, with splendid trappings (Johnny Greenwood’s by turns swanky and shadowy score, just-so cinematography that at times evokes vintage Technicolor) belying an off-putting story and characters.

With Phantom Thread, auteur Anderson and actor extraordinaire Day-Lewis work out some timely issues of the runaway male ego, the dubious excuse of great art for grotesque personality, and the shock and awe attendant to the select few who can see through genius and, for better or for worse, cut to the quick.

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