Phantom Thread is visually beautiful, wonderfully detailed, and flawlessly performed but what makes it a masterpiece is its subtle storytelling and complex characters. At its core, it’s an exploration of the complexities of humans and their relationships. The plot follows the fussy and talented garment designer, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), but the story focuses on the women in his life and the ways they learn to manage his artistic, egotistic, and persnickety personality traits.
Reynold’s sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), and his lover, Alma (Vicky Krieps), deal with Reynold’s difficulties in different ways, but rather than a binary depiction of a tyrannical artist, Paul Thoma Anderson takes the time to establish the complexities of his characters. Reynolds can be utterly unbearable and completely charming in the span of minutes. In figuring him out, Alma can be both childish and totally sympathetic. Anderson doesn’t rush his characters and lets them figure themselves and each other out on screen, allowing seemingly monotonous interactions to expand into profound explorations of character. The careful consideration of the details of daily life makes for a captivating portrayal of a passionate relationship and brings an incredible weight to each small twist in their daily routines.
Reynolds is an artist but Alma isn’t content to simply be his muse, expected to encourage, inspire, entertain, and retreat on cue, all for the sake of the artist’s great work. The relationship is far from one-sided and instead of the tired story of a women submitting her own needs and expectations for her talented partner, Alma brings a fresh and, frankly, badass approach to the relationship. Contrary to Cyril’s mild and placating approach to Reynolds, Alma takes much more aggressive methods to make sure she is not only desired in his life, but vital to it.
It’s impossible to disconnect the auteur director, P.T. Anderson, and the renowned method actor, Day-Lewis, from their own positions as artists. The entire movie feels very self-reflexive, even though the content is not overtly about the entertainment industry. After seeing the film, it is not surprising at all that Day-Lewis announced his retirement from acting in the Fall; perhaps the act of immersing himself in the role of a different type of artist impacted his impression of his own art and life.
A meaningful meditation on art, love, and the ways we learn to live with both, Phantom Thread is like a slow ride down a meandering and scenic tunnel. You don’t know where it will end but the trip is both deliberate and essential and in the end it’s the subtleties of the journey that are most important.