In my review of Call Me by Your Name, I’ve stated I noticed a common theme of strange love. The most obvious would the same sex love between two young men in Call Me by Your Name and The Shape of Water’s Beauty and the Beast-like romance between a mute janitor and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. On the surface, the romance between Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Alma (Vicky Krieps) seems normal compared to the previous relationships. But what makes them strange is how they treat each other. So, we start with Phantom Thread, a strange, challenging drama about a volatile relationship between a demanding artist and a stubborn waitress.
Reynolds Woodcock is one of the most renowned fashion designers of 1950s London. With his loyal assistant/sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) and hundreds of assistants, Reynolds designs classy wardrobes for celebrities, politicians and royalty. His life is perfect and orderly. Then he meets Alma, a timid waitress from the country. After a few dinner dates, their relationship grows closer. Soon, Cyril becomes Woodcock’s muse as she models for his designs.
But then Reynolds’ flaws start to surface. All of them. Reynolds is a demanding man who expects everything to go as routine. His breakfast must be met with silence, so he can design. If there’s any noise, he shuts down like a spoiled kid and can’t get any work done. He also avoids going out at night in favour of focusing on his designs. All of this results in emotional distance.
Alma isn’t someone to be submissive. She wants some emotional connection in her relationships and isn’t afraid to let Reynolds know that. She is also unafraid to be critical of Reynold’s clothing. And she wants to go out dancing. Her actions throw Reynolds perfect routine out of order, sending their relationship into a viral spiral.
This is said to be Day Lewis’ last movie before retirement. If it is, it is one hell of a performance to go out on. For an actor notorious for disappearing into his characters, he faced a huge challenge of portraying this difficult, complicated characters. From the opening scenes of Reynolds preparing himself for the rest of the day, Day Lewis’ body language embodies the man’s strive for perfection. He also never backs away from Reynold’s childish behavior and emotional distance. And yet, he is also able to show signs of humanity underneath. When he talks of sewing his mother’s hair in his clothing, you find some heart in the character (though a bit creeped out).
Never expect any kid gloves from writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson. He writes films about difficult people who strain on your sympathies, from a greedy oil baron in There Will Be Blood to a violent war veteran in The Master. Through these characters, he challenges his audiences with the uncomfortable portrayals of human behavior. He never backs away from the uncomfortable moments of volatility between these two. Reynolds constantly gets on your last nerves when he dismisses Alma romantic gestures if it threatens his routines. Though he has issues, Alma is no innocent bystander. Eventually we learn she’s almost as crazy as he is. In one scene, she feeds him an omelet full of poisoned mushroom. And yet, why do they stay together? It could be they both admire the beauty of Reynold’s clothes. At one point, they take their clothing back from a client after she got drunk in it.
Of all the films on this list, Phantom Thread is the most divisive. That kind of comes with the territory of challenging audiences. At least you know what you’re getting a unique experience with Paul Thomas Anderson. And so, we give our applause to acting extraordinaire Daniel Day-Lewis as the curtain closes on his career.