In 'Phantom Thread,' the Power Games Transcend Sex

It’s impossible to take your eyes off the screen in ‘Phantom Thread,’ a masterful work with a core both dark and romantic

Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps in 'Phantom Thread.'
Laurie Sparham/AP

Obsessiveness, with its power plays, eccentricities and perversities, runs like a concrete thread through the work of the American director Paul Thomas Anderson, whose eighth feature, “Phantom Thread,” is a candidate for the Oscar for Best Picture. The theme of obsessiveness, already apparent in his first full-length film, “Hard Eight,” was pursued in the movies that followed: “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia,” “Punch-Drunk Love,” “There Will Be Blood,” “The Master” and “Inherent Vice” – a list that includes some of the most important American films of recent decades. It’s now joined by “Phantom Thread,” a masterwork of meticulous design, with a heart simultaneously dark and romantic.

There is an element of deviousness in Anderson’s filmmaking. Critics and viewers alike often note that his movies possess an unresolved, even enigmatic, dimension. In fact, this is a significant aspect of his cinematic vision, which often fashions a human experience that tends to overflow its banks, as it were. The new film is equally deceptive, as it situates elements of romantic comedy within a schema of gothic melodrama, even as it seeks to subvert both genres and the interplay between them.

In many ways, this is Anderson’s most scaled-down film. It’s his first movie that is set entirely in England – mid-1950s London – and as befits a gothic melodrama, its story unfolds in one particular building. Its owner is Reynolds Woodcock, a designer of high-end fashion for Britain’s aristocracy and wealthy class. Woodcock’s private and professional life merge in the house he lives in. His residence is on the top floor; the women, all of them dressed in white, work on the floor below, transforming his designs into gorgeous wedding and evening gowns (the designing of the dresses in the film in the haut couture style of the 1950s is as precise as it is spectacular).

The strict daily procedure Woodcock follows, beginning with the rituals involved in dressing and having breakfast, mirrors the scrupulousness with which he ensures that his design vision will materialize according to the will of its creator. At times he recalls Professor Higgins in Shaw’s “Pygmalion” and in its musical version, “My Fair Lady,” as well as other protagonists from the British theater and cinema – characters who manage their lives with unswerving rigor and impose their egocentric authority on those around them from the heights of the upper class.

Woodcock’s private and professional life is ruled by his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville); the film offers no information about her private life and does not provide a psychological context to account for her strong commitment to her brother. She accepts the presence in the house of Woodcock’s latest young partner. For his part, he drops the woman who is his partner at the start of the film, having grown bored and tired of her. Not long afterward, in one his forays outside of London, he meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress who is not of British origin. After he explains to her, in a wonderful scene, the kind of breakfast he desires, and she fulfills his request to the letter, he takes her into his home as his new companion and chief model.

The pattern suggests that Alma’s stay in the house will be brief, like those who preceded her. But she is unlike the other young women who entered the household of an older, stronger man and found themselves in unfamiliar social surroundings, above their class. This has been the case with many heroines in gothic melodramas, among them Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” and Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca.” (“Phantom Thread” references Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 Oscar-winning film based on du Maurier’s novel, and other Hitchcock works as well.)

Taming the male shrew

Though Alma lacks experience and is a stranger both in England and in Woodcock’s social environment, she is not naive, and she knows what she wants: to stay by Woodcock’s side, and every means justifies that end. (Incidentally, I also noticed a reference to Don Siegel’s 1971 movie “The Beguiled,” in which – as in its 2017 remake by Sofia Coppola – mushrooms become weapons in the war between the sexes.) Anderson’s evocation of the classic cinema is also apparent in the film’s music, which was composed by Johnny Greenwood. Its romantic yet unmistakably threatening character recalls the music that the great film composers wrote in Hollywood’s classic era.

The plot of “Phantom Thread” depicts the battle of the sexes and classes that develops between Woodcock – who considers himself an artist who must be in total control of his surroundings (he even hides enigmatic phrases in the folds of the bridal gowns he fashions, as his artist’s signature) – and Alma, who is out to tame the male shrew. It’s here that romantic comedy intersects with the gothic melodrama – but this is romantic comedy that’s laced with macabre manipulations and is suffused with irony that casts something of a dark aura.

You can’t take your eyes off the screen in “Phantom Thread,” a portrait of a control artist under control. Anderson himself is the cinematographer and does laudable work. The film has six Oscar nominations, and it’s odd that this category was overlooked. The movie is also interesting in comparison to previous cinematic works that dealt with male artists and their female partners, but also invokes irony and deviousness to depart from the standard format of that genre.

It’s noteworthy that there is not even one sex scene between Woodcock and Alma in the film. The power and control games that are played out between the two are beyond sex. And perhaps the director is aiming to portray Woodcock’s asexuality, a trait that is shared by other upper-class protagonists in the British theater and cinema (among them, again Professor Higgins).

Much of the film’s power stems from the performances of the lead actors: Lesley Manville, who is known from several Mike Leigh movies; Luxembourg-born Vicky Krieps, who appeared in Joe Wright’s 2011 film “Hanna,” and shapes Alma’s character with supreme intelligence and skill; and Daniel Day-Lewis, who once more demonstrates that he is the greatest actor of his generation. His performance as an artist who is the film’s explicit obsessive center – as opposed to Alma, who is the implicit obsessive center – may explain why the actor, who chooses his roles scrupulously and makes only occasional screen appearances, agreed in 2009 to play a similar character. His role as a film director undergoing a personal and creative crisis in Rob Marshall’s failed version of the musical “Nine,” based on Federico Fellini’s “8½,” has been the only embarrassing role of his career.

“Phantom Thread” is the second collaboration between Anderson and Day-Lewis, after “There Will Be Blood.” Day-Lewis has stated that the new film will be his last. I hope he changes his mind. There have been great artists who announced their retirement but returned. Possibly this will be the case with Day-Lewis, too, if Paul Thomas Anderson – one of the most important directors of our time – will offer him a part that not even an eccentric and perhaps also obsessive actor will be able to refuse.