Art and Film: Dedicated followers of fashion

On their first date, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis, right) designs a dress for Alma (Vicky Krieps). Photo: Laurie Sparham / Focus Features

Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / In the brilliantly obtuse Phantom Thread, a paradoxically epic chamber piece, Paul Thomas Anderson explores the way in which romantic union constrains and energizes creativity. Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis, archly perfect in his purported swan song) is a creepily narcissistic and unctuous haute-couture dressmaker. The House of Woodcock caters to Europe’s elite; he sews unseen phrases into the garments he creates to ensure their singularity. He is obsessive about his work and a bachelor into early middle-age, allowing his possessive sister Cyril (Lesley Manville, conjuring Judith Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers), to manage his life – including itinerant sexual liaisons – and the business so as to nurture his craft. The relationship between the two siblings, who live in the same house and have breakfast together, appears virtually incestuous. But Woodcock instinctively understands that grand style, professional adulation, and the love of a good sister aren’t sufficient existential sustenance. These two weird control freaks meet their match in the manipulative Alma (a revelatory Vicky Krieps), the waitress Woodcock falls for, hires as a seamstress, and eventually marries – apparently taking her for a pretty, provincial simpleton.

He’s dead wrong. Objectively, the marriage is as decadent and repellent as you might expect: Woodcock lurches from simpering ingratiation to cruel condescension towards Alma. Yet Anderson, who also wrote the original screenplay, subtly turns the gender tables as he shifts the point of view. If the artist proverbially exploits the muse and then casts her aside, as Picasso did with Marie-Thérèse Walter, Woodcock can’t bring himself to discard Alma. She wields considerable power, absorbing his emotional mistreatment and then willfully debilitating him so that she can matter all the more vitally as a means of his regeneration. In an O’Neill-esque dance of self-loathing, he claims to hate his codependency, yet he sticks with it even though its benefits to his craft are speculative at best. While his fear of the vulnerability that marriage produces is palpable, he relishes it as a form of naughty slumming, in defiance of the imperiously proper Cyril. It becomes a full-blown but somehow sustainable folie à deux in which Alma remains the dominant if silent partner and Woodcock the submissive if vocal one.

Body language: Alma, Woodcock, and his sister Cyril.

Though a period drama set in mid-1950s London, before the sixties had culturally muted the likes of Woodcock – he extravagantly detests the word “chic” – from a political standpoint Phantom Thread nonetheless feels current rather than anachronistic, especially in its feminist tilt. In this epoch as in any other, there are strutting, abusive prima donnas – think of Harvey Weinstein and others drowning in his wake – who warrant comeuppance. That Anderson makes his agent of change a tough, clever woman operating discreetly within the contemporary social and political framework may be prescient. It could just as well constitute an excessively subtle and demure dispensation that ought to be avoided in favor of bolder and more overt female assertiveness. Either way, the movie speaks to the present moment, among others.

Phantom Thread, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Released in 2017 by Focus Features.

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