An everlasting challenge for artists is grasping the separation between life and death. This is the essential, unfathomable duality at the heart of writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, “Phantom Thread,” a suspenseful portrait of 1950s fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis, in what he has said will be his final acting role).
The opening scenes of the film establish the Balenciaga-inspired Reynolds as an exacting, if neurotic, man by focusing on his precise morning routine, from his close shave to his fuschia socks, which become a trademark beneath his monochrome attire.
Day-Lewis expands upon this aspect of Reynolds’ wardrobe — muted, with defining bursts of color — and builds his entire character around it. A gently mincing voice, seemingly stolen from an Edwardian governess, punctuated with startling snarls of ferocity. A benign, foxlike smile that can slip away in a split second to reveal a volcanic flurry of petulance.
Day-Lewis’ performance draws on all the strongest elements of his most recognizable roles; within Reynolds exists the inhuman obsession of Daniel Plainview (“There Will Be Blood”) masked with the quiet doggedness of his Abraham Lincoln (“Lincoln”). The effect is convincing, unsettling and altogether impressive.
Reynolds is constantly attended by his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville). She is no less obsessive than he, but Manville presents her detail orientation with metronomic logic rather than emotional acrobatics. Cyril and Reynolds have become two halves of a whole; she is his sense of calculated control, and he is her untapped creativity. High fashion requires both exact measurements and explosive novelty; their formula is what skyrocketed the House of Woodcock to its in-universe glory.
The Woodcock partnership also succeeds through Cyril’s understanding of Reynolds’ inability to metabolize normally the concept of mortality — after all, it was the death of their mother that precipitated this deficiency. However, any individual who can understand this facet of Reynolds’ nature threatens to upset this balance. Such an outsider swans into the picture in the form of Alma (Vicky Krieps), the latest of Reynolds’ young muses.
When Alma first enters the convoluted world that Reynolds and Cyril have woven, she tiptoes around Reynolds’ many household rules. The more she learns about Reynolds, quietly absorbing him with the focused dedication of a student, the more she begins to understand the quirks in his understanding of his own ephemerality, and the more she can bring Reynolds under her sway. With her fully realized ability to comprehend Reynolds, Alma is ultimately able to lead him back and forth like an embroidery needle across the boundary he refuses to acknowledge.
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Such a mutually transformative bond depends on Alma’s ability to convince and surprise us in turns; Krieps undeniably succeeds at this endeavor, ably commanding attention even when sharing a screen with Day-Lewis. Krieps’ unconventionally charming performance seizes our eyes, from her first organically clumsy appearance through her later deft psychological maneuvers.
The gorgeously tense dynamics of Alma and Reynolds’ relationship are notably represented through sound. At first, fearing Reynolds’ misophonic rage, Alma is careful even in buttering toast. After finally mastering him, in contrast, she gleefully eats and slurps with reckless abandon. The sound mixing in these scenes is gratingly effective; we, too, jump with every stroke of her knife, and we smart as she intentionally bites down on a soup spoon.
Jonny Greenwood’s score augments sound’s narrative importance, with baroque and romantic influences representing the tug between restraint and passion. As Alma expands Reynolds’ world, his stoic piano theme blooms into orchestral arrangements. When she wrests dominance from him, these swooning strings compress into jarring pizzicato until the climax, which presents an unexpectedly harmonious duet.
“Phantom Thread” is at its core a musical film, built like a piano concerto with alternating movements of gravity and humor. Reynolds is presented to us first as staunchly baroque, preferring to play without accompaniment. It is Alma who attempts to draw him into her world of romantic orchestration, and the central conflict is his unwillingness to relinquish control and establish himself as the soloist of her concerto.
The narrative turn that accompanies the final duet between their dueling instrumentations establishes “Phantom Thread” not only as a sharp psychological character study, but also as one of the most creatively illustrated romances in film.
“Phantom Thread” is currently playing at Century San Francisco Centre 9 and XD.