The life of an artist is a complex one. The struggle to find that creative spark, the work involved in getting other people to try and appreciate it, the constant battle to stay relevant amongst a changing world. And none of that even begins to describe the challenges one faces if they actually become successful. So it goes for dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock, an artist whose fans literally yearn to die in one of his creations. He lives his life as so many that are solely focused on their craft do, working long hours, being forceful with those who do not share his vision, and treating relationships as throwaways, failing to make any real meaningful connections, discarding muses once he gets what he wants. Enter Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress in a small country town, who promises to turn his world upside down. Think you know where this is going? Think again.
Daniel Day Lewis has a history of being drawn to interesting characters, and Reynolds Woodcock continues that trend. Right before his fateful encounter with Alma, he has his sister and business partner Cyril (played beautifully by Lesley Manville), break up with his current beau as Cyril thinks this one has served her purpose and is only holding him back. Reynolds’ first date with Alma adds even more layers to the psyche of the artist, as after he lays on the charm to ask her out, he uses her as a model on their first date in order to work on a new creation, unable to ever fully separate work and pleasure. “You have small breasts” he quips while taking her measurements. She is taken aback, he means it as a compliment, seeing her as someone who he is not only sexually attracted to, but can find a use for in his work. One can never fully separate the art from the artist in any aspects of their life and this fact is what drives the struggle of the film. How can two people exist together in that kind of environment?
As Paul Thomas Anderson is wont to do, Phantom Thread is a slow burn. Every detail, while seemingly insignificant to the casual viewer, serves a purpose. It is easy for some to drift, thinking the film never “gets going.” But art demands one’s attention, and everything from the volume of certain sound cues and the score (done again by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood), to the color of the dresses is painstakingly thought out. This is all worldbuilding and character development, leading to a payoff that is much more satisfying because of it. Tension steadily builds in quiet, small moments and finally crescendos in a scene that shows Ms. Krieps going toe-to-toe with a legend, and more than holding her own. In some ways, this is more her film than his, she never feeling out of place and outright stealing a few scenes from him. Don’t be surprised if we see more of her in the future.
Daniel Day Lewis has hinted that Phantom Thread could be his final role. With that revelation, one cannot help but wonder if he didn’t see a bit of himself in the character of Mr. Woodcock, an artist so deeply involved with his craft that he cannot help letting it take over his life. While the film itself may not reach the heights of some of his others, he gives a performance here that he can be proud to leave on. Phantom Thread is not for everyone, but for those willing to put in the work, it is an excellent view into the world of the artistically obsessed and everything those people leave in their wake. And I can guarantee you that in the history of cinema there has never been such an intense scene involving an omelette.