“I find it comforting to think that the dead are watching over the living,” Daniel Day-Lewis happily confides to a new acquaintance several scenes into the writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. It’s an odd thing to say to a young woman whom he seemingly plans to seduce, particularly since it refers to his mother.
Phantom Thread, which stars the always remarkable Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock, a domineering master couturier in mid-1950s London, has been characterized by many reviewers as a love story. It is that, being concerned largely with the complicated relationship between Woodcock and a young woman who serves him as a mannequin, studio assistant, and sometime accomplice. But it is also a faux Hollywood melodrama, a gothic romance, a dark comedy, a baroque chamber piece, a study in artistic self-absorption, a discreetly kinky case history, an anti-authoritarian fable, and (as Anderson himself has suggested) a fairy tale.
For a movie about fashion, Phantom Thread is triumphantly unfashionable. In one comic bit of business, Reynolds rants about the use of the term “chic,” spitting out “that filthy little word” as though it were an expletive or an olive pit. At once posh and spectral, the film luxuriates in fustiness. Reynolds may be a prima donna, but he is still the servant of an established order, producing the emperor’s old clothes. The House of Woodcock’s wealthy and aristocratic clients are not dressed so much as they are gloriously shrouded or upholstered by Reynolds in capes and bodices worthy of Walt Disney’s Snow White. I was less impressed with his designs than convinced of his particular genius and that of Anderson, whose robust, enveloping visual style is predicated on unusually close close-ups, subtly skewed compositions, suavely disjunctive editing, fastidious production design, and judicious camera movement.
The author of eight disparate and venturesome features, arguably the preeminent Hollywood filmmaker of his generation, Anderson is an ambitious director with a taste for ambitious characters: the self-made tycoons and self-appointed prophets of There Will Be Blood (2007), the cult leaders and salesmen in The Master (2012) and Magnolia (1999), the would-be movie stars of Boogie Nights (1997). Not the least of his aspirations would seem to be reviving the crowd-pleasing style of Eisenhower-era Hollywood cinema on his own idiosyncratic terms. Punch-Drunk Love (2002), a highbrow vehicle for the lowbrow comedian Adam Sandler, presents its drab San Fernando Valley locations with the visual panache of a 1950s wide-screen musical. Inherent Vice (2014), a surprisingly faithful adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s convoluted private eye novel, is not so much a neo-noir as the ironic equivalent of an old-fashioned prestige picture proudly presenting a classy best seller. In its resemblance to the Hollywood melodramas of the 1950s, The Master could easily have been called Magnificent Obsession or Bigger Than…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.