"Phantom Thread" is both a moment for celebration and a moment for mourning. It was one of the great films to come out in 2017 by one of the great originals in American movies — Paul Thomas Anderson. But it's also, according to its incomparable star Daniel Day-Lewis, the last time we will ever see him in a film again.
Which would mean, in this case, the last time we would ever see one of the most respected collaborations in modern film: Anderson and Day-Lewis.
Nothing Anderson does has ever seemed to bear any resemblance to what we ordinarily expect movies to be. Who the devil ever expected the porn industry to be a subject for nostalgic lament in "Boogie Nights?" Or that an Upton Sinclair novel about oil industry brutality would be turned by Anderson into "There Will Be Blood" starring Day-Lewis? Who ever imagined that such a film would find its most savage moment in a bowling alley?
And now we have an astonishing performance by Day-Lewis in an even less likely film than any adaptation of a novel by socialist and muckraker Upton Sinclair. "Phantom Thread" is a movie about the hopelessly irascible sensibility of a haute couture hero in mid-1950s Britain whose name is Reynolds Woodcock.
His dress designs for miscellaneous aristocrats and continental royals (he is designing a dress for Princess Margaret's wedding) are the difference for his clients between pride in their public appearance and despair. The continuing masked ball of their lives depends on his costumes.
And then this man — who is so important to so many important women — meets a woman who not only becomes essential to him but half of his heartbeat.
When he first sees her, Alma is a waitress and a stumbling, clumsy one at that. He gives her a formidable test as she takes his gigantic and absurdly specific breakfast order. He then takes her notepad and asks her to fill his order from memory.
It is the 1950s. Waitresses for powerful men don't argue with such high-handed behavior. Besides, something about this male prima donna intrigues her.
What she hadn't guessed is that she is Woodcock's physical ideal for his dresses — tall, slender, small-breasted but with a bit of a belly (that last eccentricity of his high-fashion taste is conveyed to Alma by Woodcock's formidable sister and business manager).
Alma quickly becomes his model, his muse, his life partner and, to everyone's amazement — especially his own — his wife. And then this very strange and ultra-civilized tale of art, society and romance takes a strange left turn that we don't even know happened until after it's happened. (She advises her brilliant suitor "whatever you do, do it carefully." She isn't kidding.)
Day-Lewis is one of the greatest actors we have and this is one of his most extraordinary performances. It is about a man of total self-absorption and passion encased in ferocious quiet and self-control. This is an artist of consummate intelligence and care and civility. And yet we know from his mass of eccentricities that he's also a cauldron somewhere within.
All of this is conveyed by that high-thin voice Day-Lewis has modulated differently in some of his best films (as Spielberg's "Lincoln" for instance). Lest anyone think it's all he can do, look at his electrifying, larger-than-life eruptions in Scorsese's flamboyant "Gangs of New York" and Anderson's "There Will Be Blood."
If this film literally does result in our never seeing Day-Lewis again on film, it will be an enormous loss. But I can tell you from personal experience that he is, in life, almost as dramatically fretful as he is as the self-absorbed dress designer here. I was one of about 15 members of the working movie press who fired questions at him before the release of "In The Name of the Father."
At one point, Day-Lewis — the son of a former British poet laureate and the son-in-law of the late Arthur Miller — looked out at the avid press creatures closing in on him with unkempt fervor and street-tough curiosity and he looked pleadingly over to his publicity wrangler saying "I'm sorry, I just can't do this."
He persevered anyway. He is, in life, as much of an eccentric as his character here.
The performances by the women in his life in Thomas' films are by lesser-known actresses doing brilliant work.Vicky Krieps has her own wry self-possession as Alma. And, as his sister, Lesley Manville has the most quietly dramatic moment in the film when she and her brother finally come to raise their voices. She looks at him with frigid contempt and warns him not to get into it with her.
With all the life poison that can only come from immediate family, she tells him that if he continues raising his voice at her in such anger, he'll never survive it. One look at Manville's eyes, and you know in the deepest parts of your being it's true.
It understates the case to say that this is not a film for everyone. It is, as Monty Python used to promise, "something completely different." Some call it a pretentious bore. To me, it's a truly remarkable original, unlike anything I ever imagined from either Anderson or Day-Lewis.
As for Day-Lewis, it's both my hope and my best guess that somehow, eventually, he'll persevere.
"THE PHANTOM THREAD"
4 stars (out of 4)
Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps and Lesley Manville in Paul Thomas Anderson's tale of a much-worshipped 1950's dress designer who finds love and disruption with a strong-willed woman. 130 minutes. Rated R for language.