Movies/TV

'Phantom Thread': A sensuous story about the male gaze and a muse who subverts it

Vicky Krieps and Daniel Day-Lewis in "Phantom Thread."
Vicky Krieps and Daniel Day-Lewis in "Phantom Thread."

Daniel Day-Lewis resembles an Easter Island sculpture crossed with a handsomely groomed Adonis in “Phantom Thread,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s ode to extravagance, texture, tyrannical auteurism and its most ingenious subversions.

Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a soughtafter dress designer in 1950s London whose clientele – comprising mostly wealthy matrons – see Woodcock’s creations less as pretty dresses than a crucial part of their female armamentarium: “I feel like it will give me courage,” one of his customers says of an evening gown. To unleash and fuel his inspiration, Woodcock has amassed a collection of daily rites, habits and superstitions: a strict regimen of silence, meticulously prepared meals and hushed concentration that has made marriage an impossibility. He lives with his devoted sister and factotum, Cyril (Lesley Manville), and a series of women who tend to be quietly eased out when they demand too much time and attention or – heaven forfend! – dare to speak during Woodcock’s monastic creative routine.

The world of Reynolds Woodcock – its silky elegance, focused discipline and fetishistic attention to sartorial and ritualistic detail – is captured behind a scrim of nostalgia and romance by Anderson, who invites viewers to luxuriate in the creamy interiors of Woodcock’s townhouse and atelier, the dreamy mood heightened by Jonny Greenwood’s jazz-inflected musical score. Although Woodcock has disposed of his latest romantic liaison as “Phantom Thread” opens, his next conquest presents herself when he stops for a meal in the country and orders a ploughman’s breakfast from a bright-eyed waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps). By the time he’s completed his compulsively specific order, the mutual seduction is complete, and the stylish, enigmatic, ultimately perversely playful game is afoot.

What ensues is a delicious slice of teatime gothic reminiscent of “Rebecca” and “Suspicion,” wherein love and sexual attraction become vectors for mistrust, battles of wills and power dialectics of Hegelian proportions. Vicky initially may present herself as mere odalisque to be molded and shaped by the Great Man. But soon enough, she has invaded the sanctum sanctorum of Woodcock’s self-absorbed genius, engaging in the kind of subterfuges and small rebellions that so often are the only recourse of someone relegated to the role of muse, and little else.

As a commentary on the despotic male artistic gaze, “Phantom Thread” will no doubt remind several viewers of “mother!,” Darren Aronofsky’s hallucinatory journey to the dark side of auteurist obsession. Anderson – a master of conjuring atmosphere, environment and anthropological fascination with the hidden impulses of human behavior – creates a far more pleasant sensory experience in a film that, between the rose-tinted visuals, rich brocades, laces and velvets, and Greenwood’s alternately dissonant and delicately lyrical music, exerts an irresistible sensuous pull.

Having announced his retirement last summer, Day-Lewis would have us believe “Phantom Thread” marks his final screen performance, which is a shame. The movie serves only to remind audiences what a monumental talent he possesses, being able to communicate vision, tetchy temperament and just a glimmer of Freudian angst simply by holding his sharply faceted face in profile. Krieps and Manville deliver similarly accomplished supporting performances, with Manville especially bringing tart, knowing alertness to her role as a latter-day Mrs. Danvers.

“Phantom Thread” is such an indulgence to watch – it’s such an ode to pleasure and beauty, cinematic and otherwise – it’s difficult to pinpoint why it isn’t necessarily satisfying. It might simply be Anderson’s surpassing strengths as a filmmaker don’t necessarily serve the psychodrama on offer. He’s never been particularly plotty, thank goodness, but this story entails reversals and twists that demand structural and subtextual craftiness – Hitchcockian turns and feints – that play second fiddle to mood, tone and extravagant, admittedly deeply expressive pictorialism.

If “Phantom Thread” isn’t exactly a narrative triumph, it still manages to deliver, especially as a haunting evocation of avidity, appetite and aesthetic pursuit at its most rarefied. It’s an enchanting, eventually mischievous meditation on the lengths to which we go to control and camouflage our most intimate, undefended desires.

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