The movies of Paul Thomas Anderson are brilliant but unsatisfying. Daniel Day-Lewis is our greatest actor; he is also almost always better than the movies in which he too infrequently appears. These are controversial opinions but they are correct: Even the two men’s great collaboration, There Will Be Blood, testifies to its truth, as the genius of the first two acts gives way to grisly silliness at the end, with Day-Lewis’s beating of Paul Dano’s preacher a synecdoche both for Anderson’s problem figuring out how to end his movies and for Day-Lewis’s habit of simply overwhelming his fellow actors and his movies, drinking up their milkshakes and leaving only the dregs behind.
In my view, the best way to balance a Day-Lewis performance is to stick him in a love triangle. He devours his male co-stars (has Leonardo DiCaprio ever recovered from the Gangs of New York experience?), but two well-chosen women can contain him. Winona Ryder and Joan Allen in The Crucible, Ryder again and Michelle Pfeiffer in The Age of Innocence — these are cases where you don’t remember only Day-Lewis when the lights go up.
Which makes Anderson’s design for Phantom Thread, his new collaboration with Day-Lewis (and, so it’s claimed, Day-Lewis’s final film), a particularly well-chosen one. He drops his leading man betwixt two women, a sister and a lover, who between them are strong enough to make the movie more than just a showcase for its famously intense and obsessive star. And better still, unlike those of many Anderson movies, the plot of Phantom Thread actually develops momentum as it goes along, picking up a Hitchcockian element, a touch of unpredictable suspense, that the opening act doesn’t lead you to expect.
That first act finds Day-Lewis’s latest piece of humanity, a 1950s English dress designer named Reynolds Woodcock, tiring of his latest muse and lover; she offers him the wrong kind of scone at breakfast and tosses some emotional demands on top, thereby wrecking the beginning of his artist’s day. So he allows his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), his partner in business and strange codependence, to show his mistress the door with one of his famous dresses as a parting gift, and then motors out to his country house to clear his head.
In a country restaurant nearby, though, he swiftly finds a new amour: a slightly clumsy waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps), who seems to have emigrated from some northern European country (the actress herself is Luxembourgeoise), and whose proportions and manner make her exactly what Reynolds looks for in a woman. Which is to say, a model first and a lover only later: Their first date ends with him taking her measurements (not a euphemism); they sleep together only after she’s already been installed in his townhouse and embedded in the Cyril-supervised team of seamstresses and models that forms the House of Woodcock, his little empire of couture.
That setting enables Anderson to make his movie ravishing, a feast of sumptuous fabrics and florals, white and marble interiors, firelit country retreats. His seduction of the viewer is like Reynolds’s seduction of Alma, but like her we can see the worm in the apple very early. The designer takes her to dinner . . . with his sister. Alma comes to breakfast after lovemaking . . . and there’s his sister. The ménage is always a ménage à trois, and the entire set-up, by Reynolds’s design and Cyril’s too, is clearly meant to make every lover/muse a temporary visitor, to be used up and discarded.
Which Alma declines to permit. That much you expect from the movie — a war of attrition between the muse and the sister, or between the muse and her man, or some combination, with the result either her defeat and expulsion or a revolutionary new order in the House of Woodcock. What you don’t expect are the weapons she chooses in the conflict, which go well beyond the normal charms and seductions of a lover, and take us well outside the sort of genteel Merchant-Ivory landscape in which the story begins. Nor do you expect the way she uses them, the target she chooses, and the strange psychological territory she very deliberately explores.
How starkly strange you find that territory will condition your judgment of the ending, and the film entire. I can imagine regarding Phantom Thread as another Anderson failure, with a finish that’s as bizarre in its way as the closing minutes of There Will Be Blood. But somehow this ending seemed to me much more organic and effective — weird, yes, but a weirdness that suited the story, that grew naturally from what preceded it, and that left me unsettled but still feeling, as is rare in Anderson’s movies, as if the story’s garment had been woven without seam.