Movie Review: The Exquisite Chill of “Phantom Thread”

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  Daniel Day Lewis announcing his retirement has overshadowed, somewhat, his “final” film for his “There Will Be Blood” collaborator, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson.

   “Phantom Thread” is a dry, chilly and occasionally droll tale of unconventional love in 1950s British haute couture. But whatever this cryptic, slow and dramatically thin character study lacks, Lewis lovingly paints over with one last meticulously detailed, compact and sharply-observed performance.

He plays Reynolds Woodcock, a fey 50something designer with a long-established client list made up of the wealthy and scattered pockets of European nobility. He’s a workaholic wholly enabled by “my old so and so,” his flinty, indulgent sister, protector and partner Cyril (Lesley Manville at her villainous best). He sketches designs, chooses fabrics with care and leads a legion of lady seamstresses who silently hand-stitch ballgowns and wedding dresses.

And when work is done, he has his martini, delivered by his attentive, somewhat intimidated household staff, drives his Bristol 405 recklessly fast and scribbles away in the presence of whatever female muse he enlists, seduces and then ignores.

That’s the attribute played up here, his utter devotion to the work and callous treatment of his lovers. Let them age a bit, put on weight, get depressed at being kept around as some sort of faded adornment. He unloads them. Gutlessly so.

“I simply don’t have time for confrontations.”

He’s weekending in the country when he stumbles across his next muse. Alma (Vicky Krieps) is a little ungainly, not overtly elegant, with hesitant English and a Continental working class accent. She’s a waitress impressed enough by Reynolds’ presence, his savoir fair, his confident “Will you have dinner with me?” She’s smitten.

Reyholds? He’s a self-described “confirmed bachelor.” He’s distant. His darkly funny topper to their “date” is to dress her and then, when his creepy sister gets home, measure Alma for future couture.

Gay? Maybe. This sort of marriage/relationship of convenience wasn’t unheard of in the days when “the love that dare not speak its name” was illegal in the UK. Lewis and Anderson introduce Reynolds as he dresses, fastidiously donning his smart, loose-fitting suits, tying his bow tie and pulling on each day’s pair of rose-colored socks. Yeah. Maybe.

He speaks of his wedding dress clients as superstitious, then reveals his own fears — a Mama’s Boy whose first designed and sewn dress was his mother’s last wedding gown, a man who to this day sews little messages, prayers and talismans into seams “for good luck.”

Anderson sets up a rather limply enacted war of wills, “the spoiled little baby” who cannot abide any “surprise,” trapped in his routine, almost instantly-regretting his connection to a willful, gauche (in his eyes) woman half his age. Alma is the very model of patience in refusing to slap his face. She has her own ways of getting her own. Reynolds is almost laugh-out-loud ridiculous in his rudeness, utterly immersed in his dresses — no matter how stupid and rich some of his clients are. ‘

Lewis is perfection itself in the part, prim and proper, the very model of repressed English “reserve.” Cross him and you hear his firm grasp of the f-bomb. Look at his cracked, calloused fingers as he sews and you see the one part of his appearance he dare not let himself be so fastidious about.

Watch how he silently plays this stubborn, spoiled stick-in-the-mud wrestling with the news that Alma has decided to go to a New Year’s Eve Party without him. There’s doubt, quiet fury, fear and resignation in just his stance, his eyes as they dart from mirror to floor.

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Krieps, of “The Colony” and “Hanna,” has just enough spark to suggest the steel beneath Alma’s compliant exterior. There’s a hint of the “Rebecca” of Du Maurier and Hitchcock in the struggles between Cyril and the interloper, Alma. Things could and will get ugly.

And I’m not just talking about his designs. If these bulky, busy, noisy costumes were the state of the British art in couture of the ’50s, it’s no wonder Chanel, the French and Italians ate them for lunch.

A quiet, slow and contemplative drama like this encourages the mind to wander back over other Anderson films — from “Magnolia” and “Punch Drunk Love” to “The Master,” “Inherent Vice” and “There Will Be Blood.” Most of them have the self-seriousness, arch, limited characters and acute attention to design and detail of “Phantom Thread,” and a kind of disposable gravitas.

They’re not movies most of us would really care to watch again. And if that matters (it does) it simply underlines the frosty heartlessness of the whole sumptuous exercise, even if has its darkly comic moments, even if Daniel Day Lewis is indeed “retiring” like Sean Connery, and not like Cher or Kiss.

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MPAA Rating: R for language

Cast: Daniel Day Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville

Credits:Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. A Focus/Annapurna release.

Running time: 2:10

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