Tailored to perfection, it’s hard to imagine a more exquisite movie will come along this year than Phantom Thread, featuring the latest – and possibly final – immaculate performance by Daniel Day-Lewis.
Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a feted, fussy, 50s London couturier to the aristocracy and European royalty. One thinks of Hardy Amies or Norman Hartnell but Woodcock seems consumed by his work, by his pursuit of absolute perfection in dress form.
Apart from, perhaps. that silly name of Reynolds Woodcock, the opening sequence of Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is faultless, as the atelier opens up for a day’s work: the seamstresses file in (through the mews entrance, of course) and don their white coats, Woodcock grooms himself and slips on his socks, breakfast is assembled and shutters fold in to place with a perfect clack, the sunlight falling elegantly into the salon, throwing into relief a perfect, standing deco-mirror.
It’s like watching a wonderful Sunday afternoon picture, all craft, wit and gentility. But tensions simmer. “I cannot start my day with a confrontation,” hisses Woodcock. This is a fiercely controlled Day-Lewis, far from the grand gestures of his There Will Be Blood (the previous collaboration with this director) or Gangs of New York, and far from the whiskery persona of Abraham Lincoln. It may be my favourite ever Daniel Day-Lewis performance, one for which he trained in the costume department of the Milan Opera, learning how to stitch and sew and getting his hands just right for the material.
Lesley Manville is his counterpoint, his sister Cyril, sharp as tailors’ scissors, laced up tight, exerting icy dominion over the control freak brother. What a strange relationship it is, yet how tender when in repose. “My old so and so,” he calls her. Or is that ‘sew and sew’?
Things change, slowly, when Reynolds takes a greedy shine to a new waitress in the seaside hotel near his country home. Alma is played by Luxembourg actress Vicky Krieps in a beguiling debut which requires her to stand up to Day-Lewis in his full method madness. “If you want a staring contest with me, you will lose,” she says, like a foal giraffe gaining confidence and balance every moment.
And so the challenge begins. Can Alma take all this diva behaviour, what with the sinister sister and the pin pricks? Can she even survive a breakfast where she makes too much noise buttering her toast, and makes “altogether too much movement”?
This is a beautiful, strange film that had me spellbound, to use a word from the Hitchcock lexicon, surely one of the influences on this work. I was reminded, too, of the French film Falbalas, by Jacques Becker, which Jean-Paul Gaultier credits with being his inspiration as a kid.
If I have quibbles, it’s that I’m not sure anyone would order lapsang tea in the 50s and, more importantly, the dresses, from costume designer Mark Bridges, aren’t quite as fabulous as you’d want them to be – and yet maybe that’s part of the point, too: Reynolds can’t reach the perfection he craves and his style, his taste, is going out of fashion as the new decade approaches. There’s a great bit late on where he literally spits out the word “chic” like it tasted of poison. And poison is something he should know about.
I think men might like this film more than women. It’s about control and genius and sacrifice – and I reckon there’s a fair bit of the director likening dress-making to the film-making process (PT and Phantom Thread, you see?) – but it’s also about love and surrender and the tussle for control. And the music, scored by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood with help from the Royal Philharmonic and a bit of Oscar Peterson, is just wonderful.