What even is fashion? I'm talking about high fashion here – as Paul Thomas Anderson is in Phantom Thread – not the everyday ideas about, say, what sort of sneaker is cool at the moment, but the world of haute couture, of catwalks, of rail-thin models who serve as hangers for the clothing they wear. Is it art? Is it power? Is it manipulation? Is it abandon? Is it control?
It's all of those things in this conundrum of a film, and the mystery of the strangeness of the people at the heart of it could be the phantom thread that binds all those notions together, and all of them together. This triad of designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), his sister and business partner, Cyril (Lesley Manville), and his new lover and muse, Alma (Vicky Krieps) – they are a tangle of quiet passive-aggression and overt contempt; they provoke and placate one another in turn; they play a round robin of dominance and submission, and run a relay race of awfulness as they trade off playing the role of the worst among them. They are wickedly fascinating in a way that sneaks up on you.
The whole movie sneaks up on you, in fact. Some films merely blend genre or defy genre: Phantom Thread leaves you unsure which genres are even going to come into play before it goes on to blend and defy the ones it settles on. The film's opening moments, depicting Reynolds going about his fastidious morning toilette, shouldn't be so eerie, except that Jonny Greenwood's sly score makes it so ... and then we're with Alma, speaking to someone unknown offscreen, in a conspiratorial, confessional sort of way, and this is eerie. The film, we see, is going to be a flashback illustrating how "Reynolds has made [her] dreams come true," and how she has given him "what he desires most ... every piece of me." She looks blissful, but why does that sound ominous?
Reynolds is a terrible man, we soon learn, who insults women in the same breath in which he flatters them (we'd call that negging) and believes that avoiding being "deceitful" makes him a decent person. Yet Day-Lewis imbues him with an elegance that almost gaslights you in the same way that he does with Alma almost immediately after they meet: like you can't believe he just said or did such an appalling thing, and surely you've misheard or misunderstood. "You look beautiful," he tells her gently one evening out, which sounds lovely – until you realize that he's complimenting himself: He designed and tailored the dress she's wearing especially for her. Reynolds is a serene monster. (The actor says this will be his last performance, that he's retiring from acting. I'll only believe that when he never acts again. But if he sticks to it, he will have gone out on the highest note of an extraordinary career of creating characters that indelibly stamp themselves on your imagination.)
Alma seems a fragile, flighty thing when Reynolds first meets her, as a clumsy, awkward waitress in a restaurant. Her framing of the story as one of giving herself entirely over to Reynolds is suddenly deeply worrying to us: Is this going to be another dreadful tale of a woman subsumed to a man, sacrificed to his creativity? Is this going to be another Mother!?
Fortunately, Phantom Thread is not. Anderson doesn't deny that a man like Reynolds will certainly attempt to mold women to his needs and take from them without giving back, but the filmmaker has given us a story in which the women are fully aware of what that man is doing, and have agendas of their own, are seizing their own power from the situation. Manville's and Krieps' performance are masterpieces of subtlety and diversion, and in a movie that immerses you in a world that is both as expansive as London society in the 1950s and as intimate as their home-cum-atelier, they move about with the assuredness that they are the heroines of their own stories. (And they are.)
This is a movie where you could easily go back and rewatch it three times, each time paying sole attention to just one of the three central characters, and each time be wholly convinced that it is that person's story alone. And each time, you would still find that nothing here is what you think it is going to be. That's a rare thing for a film to achieve, to not telegraph where it is going to take you. But to feel as if you're caught up in an unknowable mystery on a second or third go? (I've seen the film twice now.) That's simply extraordinary.