The search for a ‘safe celestial place’

Phantom Thread (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, cert. 15) recreates the atmosphere of a 1950s haute couture salon in London, starring Daniel Day-Lewis. He plays Reynolds Woodcock, a fashion designer dedicated to his craft to the point of obsession, and making a muse and model of Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress at a hotel near his country house.

His sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) holds the business and him together, and this sometimes sets up conflict between herself and Alma, on top of his own controlling behaviour. His will is law in the studio, where the dressmakers include two real-life seamstresses (Sue Clark and Joan Brown) as Biddy and Nana, bringing authenticity to the stitching.

When Reynolds first meets Alma, he’s charming but the control is still evident, as she takes his breakfast order – rarebit with egg, bacon, scones, “and some sausages”. It doesn’t take much to make her blush, but as she moves in to his house (and presumably his bed) it’s to the detriment of his breakfast routine, illustrated by exaggerated sounds of her scraping toast and then eating it.

Alma is the “ideal shape”, summed up by Reynolds as “You have no breasts – but I can give you some, if I choose to”. At one level, she’s content with this new glamorous role, but not with playing second fiddle to his ego or his whims.

It’s food – a surprise meal cooked by Alma – that prompts an apparent split. Perhaps it’s that scene, where Day-Lewis convincingly conveys irrationality, that makes him an Oscar® contender in what he has said will be his last film. Relative newcomer Krieps, from Luxembourg, is disappointingly not nominated (but Manville is a nominee for supporting actress).

Woodcock’s background includes his mother’s influence, and in one scene he fantasises her presence (in her wedding dress), and he seems to take comfort from the idea that the dead are watching over the living. Conversely he’s critical of seeking “some safe celestial place”.

Although it rests very much on the central relationship being unpicked and re-sown, it does need something dramatic in the plot. This bit of the story might have seemed false, but they get away with the idea that Alma might not always be looking after Woodcock’s best interest.

Anderson has stitched some interesting dialogue into the lining of his screenplay; when he loses a regular client to a rival, Cyril suggests people might want something more chic, but to him chic is “a filthy little word”.

On the other hand, there are clients he might not want; Barbara Rose (Harriet Sansom Harris) wears one of his dresses to her wedding, but passes out drunk in it, and he later retrieves the dress from her comatose body.

More conventional customers include a countess (Gina McKee) and a Belgian princess (Lujza Richter). It’s not clear whether Woodcock defers to them or they to him.

Anderson himself was cinematographer, and the sets and locations (Robin Hood’s Bay and Fitzroy Square in London) are carefully filmed. You can see the parallels in the processes of film-making and dress making, and Anderson’s label is on this one.

Steve Parish