Movie review: Phantom Thread

April 04, 2020

‘PHANTOM Thread’ got several 2018 Oscar nominations, including best picture, best director, best actor, best screenplay and best supporting actress. It’s written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, who also got nominated in the Oscars for “Boogie Nights”, “Magnolia”, “There Will Be Blood” and “Inherent Voice”, but has never won. “Phantom Thread” is an arthouse film that focuses more on characters and their interaction and not really narrative driven. Again, like our usual warning, kung bobo ka, huwag mo nang panoorin. 

The film is about a famous fashion designer in the 50s, Reynolds Woodcock (played by Daniel Day Lewis, who won his second of three Oscars for “There Will Be Blood” by the same director), a fictional character said to be inspired by real life designers Christian Dior and Cristobal Balenciaga. 

Reynolds owns London’s most sought-after coutoure house catering to rich socialites and members of the royal family. He is a demanding, meticulous, exacting perfectionist. He is not gay like other designers, but a certified ladies’ man. He’s had several girlfriends but once he tires of them, he drops them. He has never married, until he meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), who proved to be more than a match or even a foil for his eccentricities and quirks of behavior. 

The film is actually a contest of wills between Reynolds and Alma. She starts as her young muse giving him inspiration, but their relationship eventually becomes a tug of war. The dynamics of their relationship is one where they don’t really acknowledge how they need each other. 

The movie actually opens with Alma being interviewed by someone, whose identity will only be revealed much later. She declares: “Reynolds has made my dreams come true.” From there, we are introduced to Reynolds in a montage showing him doing his morning routines: shaving, cutting the excess hair on his nose and ears, putting on his favorite violet socks. At breakfast, he tells his most trusted sister Cyril (Lesley Manville, who got nominated here as Oscar best supporting actress), to get rid of his latest girlfriend.

His sister tells him to get some rest over the weekend and he goes to a hotel by the sea where a clumsy young waitress serves him. This is Alma, tall and willowy, more like a model. He orders a lot of food which she lists down, then he gets the list from her and asks her if she could still remember his orders. 

She says she would. And she does get everything right. He later asks her to have dinner with him. At dinner, which he is a very significant sequence, he does most of the yakking, talking most about his dead mother, how she influenced him to be the dressmaker that he has become. 

He talks about many other things, like superstitious beliefs about weddings and how he conceals small objects in the dresses he makes without the owners knowing about it at all. When he tires of talking, he looks at her and she tells him: “If you want to have a staring contest with me, you’d lose.”

Cyril arrives and literally starts smelling Alma by sniffing at her. Reynolds then asks her to be a model for a dress he’ll make. And that’s how their relationship gets deeper. She becomes a regular model in his London fashion house. And also his partner.

He can be very critical of her, complaining that she puts butter on her toast too noisily like ‘a horse being ridden across the room’, that she is just actually disturbing him when she means well in offering him some tea. He is a hopeless workaholic, too stressed but refuses to acknowledge it, so Alma takes some drastic steps to quiet him down, doing it her own way. We realize Alma has her own way of getting what she wants. It’s not really a battle of the sexes movie, but just some small confrontations between the two major characters.

The movie is very handsomely crafted. The elegant production design (with a 50s fashion show and a lavish New Year’s Eve party), the classy visual style, the lavish cinematography, the most classical musical score, are all remarkable. 

The acting is splendid. Daniel Day Lewis is perfect as the impatient, tightly wound, overly fussy character prone to temperamental outburst and hates surprises. He says this will be his final work and will retire from acting after this. Of course, he can change his mind later. But he has really gone a long way since we first saw him playing a macho gay young man in love with a Pakistani guy in the 1985 “My Beautiful Laundrette” by Stephen Frears. 

Vicky Krieps is a Luxembourg actress who gets her biggest break here as a scheming young woman who can give you the krieps, er, we mean creeps. Sorry, can't resist the pun. She’s not a dazzling luminous Hollywood beauty but she most certainly fits the role to a T, the irresistible force to his immovable object. She looks quite raw but fresh, and hardly has any makeup all throughout, projecting a seemingly fragile but actually steely, headstrong personality with a dark aspect with which she gets the upper hand, through the help of some mushrooms. 

Lesley Manville is also a sight to behold as the sister who doesn’t dominate but surely knows how to put his boorish brother in his proper place. 

And why is the title “Phantom Thread”? We think this comes from that scene where Reynolds gets sick (as induced by Alma herself) and he has hallucinations seeing his mother in the wedding gown he made for her on the occasion of her second marriage, and he asks: “Are you here? I miss you, I think about you all the time!” This points to a mystery in the character that we will never understand and the hopeless loneliness from which he can never seem to escape. It's the phantom thread that can be quite captivating, but also very terrifying.