Phantom Thread tells the story of a 60-year-old man who has behaved like an incorrigible child his entire adult life because his genius has allowed him to get away with it. His name is Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), his business is fashion design and he lives in 1950s upper-crust London but this elemental romantic drama about a stubborn man meeting his match could be taking place anytime, anywhere. An early breakfast-table scene suggests that Woodcock has long had a revolving door of lovers, each of whom he can’t tell apart from the last. His most important relationship is with his sister, Cyril (Leslie Manville), who carefully maintains the balance of his well-manicured existence. Enter Alma (Vicky Krieps), the country waitress whose “ideal figure” and beguiling manner strike his fancy like so many women before her. But Alma is different: she actually worms her way into his heart. A scene where she fiercely demands a drunken patron remove one of Woodcock’s dresses causes him to see her in a new light — not unlike the moment where Lisa Fremont enters Lars Thorwald’s apartment in Rear Window. But Alma, even shrewder and more clever than she first appears, soon has to rely on more devious means in order to make their relationship perpetuate, turning Woodcock painfully inside out in the process.
My friend Scott Pfeiffer has written that writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson posits one of Alma’s decisive actions (you’ll know the one when you see it) “as a metaphor for the skill of figuring out how to live.” I will go further and suggest that the film as a whole is a manual for marriage: how do you let someone into your world without upsetting your routine? How do they let you into theirs? This movie absolutely nails what it’s like to have to put up with the petty annoyance of listening to someone eat too loud. I’ve heard the ending described as “twisted” and “unsettling” but I must note that Phantom Thread, which appears to be Anderson’s most autobiographical work, was made by a man who has been in a successful monogamous relationship for 17 years. As a happily married man of 10-plus years myself, it’s hard for me to see the conclusion as anything other than an optimistic statement about how two people learn to compromise and make their relationship work, however unconventionally. As such, it joins the ranks of the great films about marriage: Rossellini’s Journey to Italy, Godard’s Contempt, Elaine May’s A New Leaf and Kiarostami’s Certified Copy. Although I prefer the looser and wilder Inherent Vice, there can be no doubt that Phantom Thread is Anderson’s most elegantly structured and perfectly realized work. Also, it’s fucking hilarious.