Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread is a painfully beautiful film: the fragile peace of 1950s London, where faded grandeur is haunted by the fresh memory of war; Jonny Greenwood’s magnificent full-orchestra score, which is in turns tremulous and terrifying; the carefully variegated cinematography, which alternates between stable wide shots and jerky tracking shots; and, of course, the sumptuous elegance of Mark Bridges’s costume design, which juxtaposes heavy tweed and lush velvet with the most delicate lace and ethereal satin. The beauty is born of tension between opposing poles, and the viewer has the surreal experience of being simultaneously anesthetized and agitated. This feeling of being stretched in different directions also defines the film’s central relationship, the strange, dark love affair between fastidious master dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his lithe, bewitching muse, Alma (Vicky Krieps).
Day-Lewis’s Woodcock is the consummate artist, utterly devoted to his work and subject to the exigencies of creative inspiration. When he is up, the world is a playground full of color and wonder and romance; when he is down, there is nothing that can be done, no one who can dispel his black mood. This routine is too demanding for most mere mortals, and we quickly learn that Reynolds has a habit of driving away the women in his life. Aside from his steadfast and ruthlessly competent sister Cyril (Leslie Manville, turning in a performance drenched in understated bravura), there seems to be no other living soul to whom Reynolds is close. When we first meet him, he has totally lost interest in his current lover, who complains during breakfast that she can no longer compete with his dresses for his attention. “I cannot begin my day with a confrontation,” Reynolds calmly responds. Reading her brother perfectly, Cyril later suggests dismissing the woman, pronouncing the decisive judgment: “She’s getting fat sitting around waiting for you to fall in love with her again.” Clearly these siblings have been through this before.
Into this carefully maintained ecosystem Alma enters with a bang. Reynolds discovers her waiting tables in a countryside café—she has no elegance, none of Reynolds’s own soft touch, but he immediately sees what she does have: a fierce independence, a feline intelligence, and a certain fighting spirit that he finds fascinating. In turn, though she is initially dazzled by his style and his flair, what she really loves is the knowledge that she is the one who pushes him to realize his full genius. Anderson refuses to make this a shallow tale of physical attraction. Indeed, Reynolds’s interest in Alma is at first nonsexual. When he brings her back to his London atelier he installs her in a separate bedroom. And while they do eventually consummate their relationship, theirs is really a bond on the spiritual level. Alma, at least, knows this. Late in the film when Reynolds has taken ill she tells a bewildered interlocutor that if he dies she will go through countless afterlives to find him again, confident that he will be there waiting for her.
But in the meantime, in the earthly realm, their love remains to be tested. Cyril, whose icy omnipresence in Reynolds’s life comes to be seen less as a form of control than of protection, does not take to Alma, precisely because she sees with unique clarity the effect this new woman has on her brother. His work carries on, of course, but Alma has a way of unchaining his primal instincts. In one of the movie’s most important sequences, she angrily convinces him that a fat, drunken client does not deserve to wear the beautiful dress he has made for her; together they barge into the woman’s hotel suite and steal the garment right off her sleeping body. Anderson plays this off as a triumphant episode, with Reynolds and Alma making a breezy escape into the London night accompanied by a swell of strings and a romantic kiss—but it is rather the start of Reynolds’s final downfall, the moment he allows Alma the permission to turn his love into rage. The potentially hackneyed rivalry between lover and sister is now something much deeper: Whereas Cyril represents the monastic discipline, the serene disinterest required to sustain true greatness, Alma indulges Reynolds’s destructive and (eventually) self-destructive tendencies. Perhaps the fickle flame of artistic invention burns brighter under Alma’s stewardship, but we get the sense it won’t last nearly as long as it would otherwise.