“Phantom Thread” is a thing of beauty with darkness at its center. The new film from Paul Thomas Anderson — which may be the final film of Daniel Day-Lewis and will certainly be remembered as the first movie to bring Vicky Krieps to international attention — is absurdly pleasurable to watch and to listen to, an effortless display of poise from its camerawork and costumes to the characters and the things they say. It’s also a desperate struggle for dominance that doubles as the tenderest of love stories, between two people who are marvelous to behold and creepy as hell.
We are in 1950s London, among the swank set and those who cater to them. Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) is a revered dressmaker to European royalty and rich Americans, swaddling them in gowns that are the height of tasteful postwar elegance. If Day-Lewis makes good on his announced retirement, he’s going out in style: Reynolds, modest yet imperious, married to his craft yet fussy and vain, is one of the actor’s most fascinatingly idiosyncratic creations.
Matching him stride for decorous stride is Lesley Manville as Reynolds’s sister Cyril, business manager of the House of Woodcock and fierce protector of her brother’s mystique. When a fan tells Reynolds she wishes she could be buried in a Woodcock gown, it’s noted that Cyril would probably dig up the corpse and take back the dress.
And who’s this moving in from the sidelines? Alma Elson (Krieps), a waitress at a country inn — a nobody — whom Reynolds has taken in as the latest in a series of mannequin-muses. These women tend to not last long (a previous contestant is seen collecting her things in an early scene), but the seemingly shy Alma is made of harder stuff. “If you want to have a staring contest with me,” she sweetly tells Reynolds after their first dinner together, “you will lose.”
Indeed, one of the sneaky charms of “Phantom Thread” is how it pits a society, a man, and a craft founded on gazing at women against a woman who insists on gazing right back. Reynolds literally takes his new conquest’s measurements, murmuring over the tape, “You have no breasts. . . . No, it’s perfect; it’s my job to give you some.” But what if the object of his affection doesn’t want to be objectified?
That makes “Phantom Thread” sound doctrinaire, when it’s first and foremost a drama of two iron-willed people vying for survival and calling it love. Anderson’s script is often laugh-out-loud funny in its passive-aggressive (and very British) invective, the way a vicious put-down can be delivered in the most civilized tones imaginable. The surface of this movie is a surfeit of richness — creamy camera moves (courtesy of cinematographer Anderson); Jonny Greenwood’s achingly beautiful score; images of women in white weaving and sewing like the Fates — but under the surface the claws are out, and the battle takes turns that twist and kink.
After a period of mixed work — “The Master” is, to this viewer, an ambitious mess that fails to find its shape, and “Inherent Vice” is a cult object beloved by a few (myself included) — Anderson once more delivers a film that, like “Boogie Nights” and “There Will Be Blood,” feels of a piece and that repays return visits. “Phantom Thread” is a feast of double meanings, with the central duo both ennobled by their passions and two of the worst people on Earth.
The film only seems like it wants us to laugh at a much-married American heiress (Harriet Sansom Harris), pickled in alcohol and self-loathing, who’s ultimately deemed unfit to wear a Woodcock creation; Anderson knows she’s actually the film’s most tragic figure. The dresses — are they state-of-Vogue art or only the high bourgeoisie’s idea of same? Is Reynolds an artistic genius or just a tailor with pretentions? Is Alma a strong-minded heroine or a delusional psychotic? Do these two deserve each other? Would anyone else have them?
“Phantom Thread” puts you into a delirious state in which all possibilities are to be considered, all the way down to a final handful of scenes that leap off the cliff yet feel entirely right. The movie plays like “Rebecca” rewritten by Harold Pinter (with the icy Manville a ringer for Mrs. Danvers), or a game whose sly entwinings of eros and agita are worthy of Nabokov. Not for nothing does a balcony shot late in the film mirror an iconic photo of the novelist and his wife and muse Vera. Lovers of classic cinema will dine out for months on the many allusions woven into this movie’s warp and weft. (They’ll also probably want to drink in this film in 70mm — the Coolidge Corner is showing a print — whose warm, old-school tones amplify the luxe visuals.)
Even casual moviegoers will find plenty of moments to savor: the cock of Cyril’s eyebrow as she puts Alma and even her brother in their place; the skritch of a butter knife on toast that disrupts Reynolds’s precious breakfast quiet; the way food and hunger come to stand in for both sex and the urge to create. The secret messages sewn into the hems of the dresses. The ghost in the corner. A knife gliding through freshly picked mushrooms.
At the heart of “Phantom Thread” is a dance between two difficult people, embodied by a pair of actors at the absolute top of their game. Day-Lewis is an acknowledged alchemist, and Reynolds — foppish, temperamental, gifted, insecure — is a dazzlingly complete creation. That said, the generosity with which he allows Krieps to serve as the film’s center is remarkable and rewarded. The Luxembourg-born actress, a 10-year veteran of European film and TV, charts every subtle step of Alma’s transformation, from meekness to a godlike serenity that’s only a little terrifying.
Not once do you doubt Alma’s love for Reynolds, even (or especially) when that love threatens to turn lethal. “Phantom Thread” is a reminder that every devoted couple is its own universe, with its own raptures and rules. It’s also a feast for anyone who loves the movies.
Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville. At Boston Common, Kendall Square (digital only), Coolidge Corner (70mm). 130 minutes. R (language).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.