Movies about domineering artists ask a relevant question: how much abuse will you take for the sake of the art? The fact that the art on display in Phantom Thread is dressmaking is only a vehicle for the film’s themes. Like a sports movie, the sport itself isn’t the point. The story of the athlete, or artist, is universal.
Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a renowned dressmaker with a rigid, orderly process. He courts Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress, and tells her up front that there’s no room in his life for a spouse. Nevertheless, Alma moves in and creates conflicts for Reynolds, and his sister/personal assistant Cyril (Leslie Manville).
I so respect Reynolds’ self-certainty. He sets the stage the first morning we see them at breakfast together. Reynolds says he can’t begin the day with confrontation. He’s delivering a dress today and has no time for confrontation. Yeah! I have work too! Don’t bother me with your trivial affairs!
He warned her there’s no room in his process for surprises. Her thoughtful pot of tea is an unasked for interruption. Reynolds can be so strict because he gets results. If his process is lucrative and acclaimed business, who is anyone to argue he should slow down and be more accommodating?
It’s not exclusive to Alma. Reynolds doesn’t want to waste his time with social events like his customers’ weddings either. I get that. He doesn’t get paid to hang out and socialize. Just let him do the job and go.
Most artists and craftsmen are more like me, I hope. I refrain from hurting people’s feelings as best I can, even if they’re being annoying and invasive. There are diplomatic ways to handle them, but that wouldn’t make a great movie.
Still, Reynolds’ complaints about Alma’s noisy breakfast habits are like a highbrow Curb Your Enthusiasm. It’s valid too. The noise is a sensory attack. Artists who require concentration can relate.
Reynolds and Alma’s power struggle keeps the viewer rapt as it keeps both parties staying in a destructive relationship. She keeps pushing stuff Reynolds doesn’t want, but also keeps him coming back. Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson escalates the tension with mounting score and editing rhythms.
There is some good dress porn too. The intricacies of how a tailor shapes the body through the fabric are fascinating. Each customer is as unique as any clientele. He’s got to give the customer what they want, but maintain his own high standards.
The chance to see Phantom Thread on 35mm film is exquisite. Film is so rich, where the sterile tailor shop creates luminous dresses, and more ornate dining and leisure rooms. Closeups of the tape measure against skin are also stunning.
You could see Phantom Thread as a male reboot of The Dressmaker. I hope there are no Dressbros this year complaining #notmydressmaker. Men can be dressmakers too.