In the rarefied setting that informs Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest luxury, the title “fashion designer” seems imprecise when describing the vocation of the protagonist, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis). He’s a dressmaker. All he makes is fine dresses for fine ladies. He is not, in fact, interested in fashion as an art form, though he obviously sees himself as something of an artist. More to the point, he’s an aesthete, a trait that Anderson emphasizes in the broadly conceived opening sequence, which shows Woodcock carrying out his morning ritual of dressing himself and then eating breakfast, preparations that are as vital to his vision of life as a series of beautiful choices as are his selection of fabric and filigree for his apparel.
Woodcock comes across as pompous and self-involved, but Anderson downplays these attributes to highlight his skills as a sketch artist and seamstress. The audience is never privy to his ideas with regard to what he’s making, but you get the idea through the details of the work. Woodcock’s dresses are, of course, an idealized function of the female form, but his dictatorial touch means that the women who wear them don’t have much say in their interpretation. So Anderson provides the master with two female foils, both represenatative of the 1950s London milieu in which the movie takes place. Woodcock’s sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), is presented as the sensible business side of his undertaking, a woman whose practicality enrages her brother with her talk about the appeal of “chic” designers who may be drawing longtime clients away. Though elegant and poised as only an upper crust Brit can be, Cyril is essentially the vulgar side of the trade that Reynolds rejects as strongly as he would Frosted Flakes for breakfast.
And then there’s Alma (Vicky Krieps), a Francophone waitress whom Reynolds picks up while she’s on the job. He makes her his latest model, partly to get her into bed (apropos the Kubrickian rigor of the mise-en-scene, there are no sex scenes, however), but mainly to provide himself with the kind of inspiration that is fleeting in his line of work. Woodcock doesn’t require or even desire love, because he’s a narcissist, but he does demand attention and when Alma eventually asserts her own position within his sphere of importance, she becomes a bother.
If Phantom Thread lacks a compelling plot line, it makes up for it with shifting character developments that convey a specific time and a place with uncommon historical vividness. It is neither a love story nor a portrait of the artist as a stuck-up misogynist, but rather a study of a strange profession and the kind of man who is drawn to that profession because of his unique sensibility; which isn’t to downplay the women’s effect on that sensibility. Alma is one of the most interesting and complicated characters in all of Anderson’s movies. The fact that she isn’t the center of attention shows just how careful and dedicated an artist he is. He may have more in common with Woodcock than he’d care to admit.
Now playing in Tokyo at Cine Switch Ginza (03-3561-0707), Yebisu Garden Cinema (0570-783-715), and Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670). From June 9 at Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551).
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