The Dressmaker

The new Paul Thomas Anderson film, Phantom Thread, is set in London in the mid-1950s, and tells of a tortured romance between a highly strung, perfectionist fashion designer, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), and his irrepressible newfound muse and lover, Alma (Vicky Krieps, Raoul Peck’s The Young Karl Marx). His controlling, exacting sister Cyril (a divine Lesley Manville), station-master of sorts at the illustrious House of Woodcock, reveals herself to be indispensable as time goes on. The film is masterful in every respect, from the obvious—the commanding performances and frequently woozy camerawork—to those oft-overlooked components, such as the precise, commanding sound design, by Christopher Scarabosio, and the score (by Anderson’s now-regular collaborator, Jonny Greenwood), which is one of the year’s best. The costumes, which were exhaustively researched, are, naturally, exquisite; not for nothing has the film been nominated for six Oscars.

The story is relatively straightforward: ructions are caused by the replacement of Reynolds’ ageing but attractive muse by a younger, newer, and altogether more ravishing model. At the start, it’s implied that his current beau fits in well because the pattern on the dress Reynolds made for her perfectly aligns with the rivulets on her morning coffee cup—but also because she’s docile and all-too-aware of Reynolds’ dislike of noise at breakfast time. He’s a man of absolute precision and orderliness, but he seems also to tire easily. Cyril suggests Reynolds find someone new to dress (and fall in love with), and so he does, asking Alma on a date while ordering an excessively detailed breakfast at the seaside hotel where she works as a waitress. Alma is a noticeable disruption, and doesn’t take Reynolds’ criticisms sitting down.


Some have seen in the film a primary undercurrent of sado-masochism, and there is one memorable scene that arguably supports this better than most: a fashion show, chez Woodcock, in which Alma and other models are paraded around to show off new creations for wealthy clients. Reynolds—when he isn’t fussing over her and the other women’s next dresses—spies on proceedings through a peephole (as if on an orgy he can only watch from afar), the camera so close to his darting, frantic eyes that we witness a spindly blood vessel nearly pierce his ever-modulating green iris. Talk about acting without speaking. Other scenes, such as Cyril’s first encounter with Alma—in which the two square one another up, and she guesses Alma’s perfume—have to them a giddy sense of forbidden admiration, if not the stirrings of romance; again, it’s all in the eyes. Day-Lewis trained for the role by learning how to make dresses, and his is a method performance par excellence, one for the ages. Accents are arguably his specialty, and the squirrely borderline-incoherent entry here is among his best turns.


The world of Phantom Thread is markedly cloistered and more narrow when compared to that of many of Anderson’s other films. A significant dramatic point is made of the closing of doors, lest the outside world—or even the disturbances beyond each in a series of matryoshka-like rooms—intrude on the genius at work within. (A closed door, of course, continually affords Reynolds opportunities to unveil his lavish creations.) The ghostly descriptor in the title refers to Reynolds’ superstitions, and mainly to his belief in the benevolent persistence in this realm of spirits who have long passed on to the next. He sews what he calls “secrets” into the hems and linings of garments. He remembers his late mother by the strands of her hair that have, quite literally, become part of the fabric of his favourite coat, and he places embroidered labels into dresses bearing indistinct communiqués—such as the hauntingly allusive “never cursed,” discovered by Alma in a wedding dress destined for a Belgian princess.

As he did on The Master, Jonny Greenwood here takes inspiration from a range of Romantic and 20th-century composers popular in the era in which the film is set, adding a strain of contemporary dissonance. Motifs and melodies fit for a Debussy suite or Chopin étude ebb and flow endlessly throughout the film, underlining the decadence and exactitude of Reynolds’ near-hermetic world. In one cue, “Phantom Thread III”, there’s a surfeit of robust, Mahlerian—even Soviet—emotion; elsewhere, on “House of Woodcock” and “Sandalwood II,” for example, Greenwood gives constructs a dream-world of wave-like Ravelian phrases. Quite often the music seems to take over entirely—but of course that’s the point: it bespeaks the emotions no character feels able to express. Pieces by Schubert, Brahms, Debussy and Fauré are used (plus the suitably graceful second movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique) alongside a few pop songs, but there’s nothing here to rival, for example, Anderson’s ecstasy-inducing employment, in The Master, of Ella Fitzgerald’s version of Irving Berlin’s “Get Thee Behind Me Satan.” On this project, Greenwood’s score is accorded the most responsibility in terms of bearing subtext, and it certainly handles its duty well.


As is the case with much of Anderson’s other work, this is not merely a character study but a tale of oft-tyrannical dominance coupled with active, even wonton submission: think of Philip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly’s Sidney and John in Hard Eight; of Mark Wahlberg and Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights, or of the torturous father-son dynamic in There Will Be Blood. Think, perhaps most obviously, of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s transcendent (and, sadly, final) performance as the cruel and unusual Lancaster Dodd in The Master, and the everlasting, loving grasp he has on Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). In all these films, the protagonist is finally revealed to be not the aggressor, not the pursuer, but the one being chased and lusted after. This construct remains true with Phantom Thread, too, as Alma presses things into action at nearly every significant turn. What marks this script out, however, is the manner in which characters are introduced. For example, we hear the name Cyril mentioned a number of times before we meet her, and even then her exact relationship to Reynolds (i.e., that she is his sister) is revealed only later.

In making the atmosphere of the inner sanctum of the House of Woodcock deliberately laboratory-like, Anderson took inspiration from designers such as Christian Dior and Yves Saint-Laurent, and went as far as to give Reynolds a few dozen assistants in austere white coats. If Reiner Holzemer’s exceptional documentary of last year about the designer Dries van Noten is anything to go by, the rarefied world of haute couture and its distinction from the rest of society hasn’t changed considerably. Anderson does his own cinematography here, and much of it rivals the best in recent memory. An exceptional minute-long dissolve between a dinner scene in a restaurant and double-speed footage of a car racing into the night is absolutely dizzying. The 35mm stock he uses is reminiscent of Ed Lachman’s 16mm work on Todd Haynes’ Carol, a film with which Phantom Thread shares an intimate style.

Day-Lewis has indicated this will be his final performance on film; that he’s hanging up his hat and retiring from the movie business. If true, it’s sad—but what better way to go out than on top.</p