Is being an artist a kind of curse? That's one of the questions raised by Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread, a lush, grand, compelling drama set in the stultifying world of 1950s London fashion.
Its central character, Reynolds Woodstock, is certainly afflicted by a crippling desire for perfection, but so is the man who plays him: Daniel Day-Lewis burrowed so deep into the twisted soul of this tormented couturier that he drove himself into a deep depression, and subsequently announced this role would be his last. If it is, his glittering career could hardly have ended on a more appropriate note.
Austere, elegant, immaculately dressed, Woodstock designs gowns for the rich and famous, swirling cascades of silk and taffeta wrested from the stormy depths of his soul. As if to underscore the fact that they're works of art rather than mere garments, he embroiders hidden messages into the hems: "never cursed", whispers a secret motto concealed in a princess's wedding dress.
He works and lives in a pristine Belgravian town house run with forbidding efficiency by his sister and indefatigable ally, Cyril (Lesley Manville). A small army of seamstresses arrive each day to breathe life into his creations, and Woodstock's private life is managed with the same chilling neatness.
His sexual needs are met by a series of muses who are quietly escorted to the nearest exit by Cyril once their allure has faded. When we first meet him, he's giving his latest conquest the flick: "where have you gone, Reynolds?", she mutters pathetically before being consumed by the vast ocean of his indifference. Job done, then, but the next woman won't be quite so easy to get rid of.
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Woodstock has motored down to his country home when he meets a young continental girl called Alma (Vicky Krieps), who's working as a waitress in a cafe. As the thin man orders an absurdly copious breakfast, sexual tension fills the air. But when Reynolds wines, dines and whisks Alma back to his tastefully decorated cottage, instead of seducing her, he starts fitting her for a dress.
Alma will be his latest muse and when Cyril meets her, her assessment only sounds polite. "You have the ideal shape," she quips, "he likes a little belly." Alma is taken in and given a room next to Woodstock's: in the dead of night, he pays surreptitious visits. But the girl is given an officious-looking white coat and expected to blend into the background when not servicing his needs. She's no wallflower, however, and when Woodstock starts moaning about her table manners, Alma refuses to be edged out and fights back.
There's a scene late on involving a mushroom omelette that might divide audiences in the way the "I drink your milkshake!" moment did in There Will Be Blood - you'll know what I mean when you see it. Indeed, the oppressive style and sublimated Hitchcockian tensions might not be for everyone either, but I loved this film, omelette and all, and suspect it will eventually be seen as a Gothic classic.
Day-Lewis's preparations for this role sound positively exhausting: he learnt how to sew, studied British couture of the 1950s with an expert at the Victorian and Albert Museum in London, understudied with the New York Ballet's costume designer and eventually created a couture gown himself using his wife, Rebecca Miller, as a model.
All of that seems to have allowed him to become Reynolds Woodstock: there's no distance between actor and man, and he embodies this preening, fastidious, manically driven perfectionist with fearless conviction. He meets his match in Krieps who, like her character, refuses to be overwhelmed by the heavyweight opposing her and insists on being noticed.
Stunning outfit: Daniel Day-Lewis, director Paul Thomas Anderson and Lesley Manville
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There's a fascinating ambivalence about all their exchanges and it's great to see Manville's excellent work here being honoured with an Oscar nod.
Most interesting of all is Thomas Anderson's intimation that Woodstock finds himself as unpleasant to be around as everyone else does, and secretly wishes someone would dislodge him from his hamster wheel.