There are a few certainties. The movie stars Daniel Day-Lewis, in what is purportedly his final role, as a middle-aged dress-maker named Reynolds Woodcock in 1950s London. He lives with his stern sister (Lesley Manville) and makes expensive dresses for wealthy women. He meets a young foreign waitress, Alma (Luxembourg-born Vicky Krieps) who becomes his model and his lover, apparently one in a series of such women, but their relationship develops into a perverse co-dependency.
Is it a dissection of the artist and his muse. A Pygmalion story, or Beauty and the Beast? A thriller inspired by Hitchcock's Rebecca, as director-writer Paul Thomas Anderson has suggested? My first impression was that it was a character study in the mode of Somerset Maugham, an old-fashioned character study of human duality and the quest for fulfillment. All these things seem possible without quite seeming sufficient.
"A poem should not mean. But be," wrote Archibald MacLeish, and this fascinatingly idiosyncratic, meticulously-made film is certainly better at "being" than "meaning". Phantom Thread is framed by an interview with a young woman, leaning back in a stuffed chair in a flickering light. It may be a kind of confession, or victory speech.
Our story unfolds: Woodcock (Day-Lewis), with his double-phallic name, is a fussy, introverted middle-aged bachelor and famous dress-maker. He lives in a handsome London townhouse that doubles as his studio, where his precious time and business affairs are managed by his no-nonsense sister, Cyril (Manville), in a role that resembles the ominous Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock's Rebecca.
At a country inn one morning, Woodcock spots Alma (Krieps), a pretty, clumsy young woman, who trips as she crosses the dining room. He stares at her wolfishly and, in an unusual come-on, orders a glutton's breakfast -- Welsh rarebit, scones, sausages -- as way of expressing his hunger for her.
It soon turns out he has been been secretly dressing her with his eyes. That evening he invites her home and gets her to disrobe so he can take her measurements. "You have no breasts," he observes. When she apologizes for the short-coming, he dismisses her concerns. “It’s my job to give you some — if I choose to.”
Meanwhile, his sister Cyril stands by, noting down Alma's measurements.
Beautiful dresses are Woodcock's first love; their imperfect inhabitants of much less interest. The dresses are his poems, sometimes with hidden messages sewn into the linings ("Never cursed" is the phrase he sews into a wedding gown).
The actual dresses created in the film by costume designer, Mark Bridges, are stiff, structured, complicated affairs, nothing like the sleek, sexy Grace Kelly gowns Edith Head, we tend to associate with fifties' style. Instead, they're mini-cathedrals, assembled by teams of silent technicians in white lab coats. When Woodcock's sister, Cyril, mentions the word "chic", Woodcock recoils in disgust. He is not making fashion; he is making art.
Day-Lewis, ever the Method actor, studied tailoring in preparation for the role, and he gazes and handles the material with a deftness that suggests years of experience. The pin pricks on his thumb make "pains-taking care" look extremely literal.
If he is the genius, sister Cyril (the amazing Manville) is both the brains and muscle of the operation. She tends to begin sentences with such phrases as "Let me unambiguous..." which is scarcely a risk. Her slightest hand gesture or cocked eyebrow sends the dress-making minions scurrying. She's the guardian of, not only her brother's time, but also his sensitive creative instrument, which, she doesn't mind reminding him, pays the bills.
Alma, who, annoyingly, won't be pushed back of the closet when Woodcock has tired of her, begins to ruffle his precious equilibrium. She eats noisily, grossly to his ears, and wants to talk at breakfast, pulling his focus away from his next creation, or the next pretty human clothes-hanger he has spotted.
A three-way, mostly silent battle of the wills unfolds in the townhouse, where the clumsy foreign young woman proves more wily and persevering than can be guessed. She's even something of an artist herself: She makes a mean mushroom omelette.
On second thought, I suspect I do know of what Phantom Thread is about: A comic allegory of the love-hate nature of the creative process. There's a painting of Christopher Marlowe, who wrote Doctor Faustus, accompanied by a Latin motto, which translates as "That which nourishes me, destroys me". (Angelina Jolie later adopted it as a belly tattoo.) It could be the motto for The Phantom Thread, a playful, meticulously-tailored ensemble to die for.
Phantom Thread. Directed and written by Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps and Lesley Manville. The Phantom Thread plays at the Cinema Varsity & VIP theatre.