The madness in his method
02 February, 2018 — By Dan Carrier
Daniel Day Lewis in Phantom Thread
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
A YOUNG woman stands on a box in her underclothes. She is vulnerable: she is circled by two others, one smelling her, noting her perfume and what she ate for dinner, the other measuring her, as if she were a piece of livestock.
It’s a horrible moment in a dark film, and sets the tone for a drama that is as uncomfortable as the ludicrously expensive dresses that are the plot driver for what, we are a told, will be Daniel Day Lewis’s last screen performance.
Reynolds Woodcock (Day Lewis) is a high-end couture dressmaker, a man who dresses royalty, socialites and assorted other money-laden despicables. From his Bloomsbury Square house, he has a procession of upper-class twits, clip-clopping to his rooms, where he and his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) take measurements and cut cloth.
While on a trip to his weekend retreat, his eyes fall on a waitress: over ordering a breakfast – and breakfast plays a large part in this drama – he decides she is a muse. Almer (Vicky Krieps) is taken home and instead of being seduced is made to model a dress.
She instantly falls for him, but he’s no easy person to love.
Haunted by the long-dead mother he adored, in an asexual, taut relationship with his sister and only really infatuated with the clothes he is creating, she is quickly reduced to the role of one of his working-class dressmakers, who carry out his orders when his snake-like voice deems it necessary to speak.
As Almer realises her attempts to break through his well-tailored exterior and win his heart are going to be unsuccessful, she decides a route other than simpering worship is needed – and here the film becomes more sinister.
This film looks stunning. The sets are terrific, the clothes explain why people who care about these things can rightly claim they are a form of art. But even better is the sound. The incidental music starts with a 50s jazz feel, goes into a classical riff led by violins and piano, and then as things get darker is overtaken by discordant cello. On top of this is every cut of the material, push of the needle, creaking floorboards and clicking door handles – it’s as suffocating as Day Lewis’s performance.
The subject of sin runs through like the threads on the dresses. Greed and jealousy, lust, anger and pride. Woodcock is a portrait of an impossible genius, a man who has no idea of empathy.
Day Lewis is rightly lauded by critics and loved by cinemagoers. His performances in My Beautiful Launderette, My Left Foot, In The Name Of the Father, There Will Be Blood and Lincoln are stand-outs, and he creates a brilliant character here. But lurking is the sense that he only need burp and the bouquets would fly. Alongside him is a magnificent performance by Manville, whose pinched mouth and steely eyes are as impressive.
This clever and at times stunning film isn’t nice to watch. Anderson has created a vile bully of a man, and a woman who is put into circumstances that forces her into drastic action.