If you approach Phantom Thread at face value, as depicting simple reality, it is a somewhat diverting tale of artistic drive and obsession with beautiful production values. Frankly not that exciting and, at times, just bewildering in the relationships. However, if taken more as metaphor (think of it with the subtitle: The Story of a Muse and Her Boy ), it is a discussion of art and the artist and who owns who in that relationship.
Given the title, Phantom Thread, I have to think writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson (Inherent Vice) was going for something less prosaic than just sex and inspiration. In fact, there is no onscreen sex, though there is some implied. But all moments of intimacy lead to creation in this film. Much like The Post, the focus of shots is often not the people but rather the objects they are in service to. In this case that is the clothes. And, my oh my are there clothes! In the end, the drive to create, and the process involved, is powerfully driven home by the final scenes and revelations.
Daniel Day Lewis (Nine, Lincoln) gives another memorable performance as the couturier, Reynolds. A man recognizable as the head of any house of fashion but uniquely his own. Opposite him, Vicky Krieps (A Most Wanted Man) holds her own and often dominates the screen quietly and with subtle expressions. Their relationship never fully jumps off the screen, but it doesn’t have to. It isn’t about romance, it is about their give and take with one another; the battle for supremacy. It is all very Greek.
Around the two main characters are two wonderful supporting performances. Lesley Manville (River) as Reynold’s sister is a master of understated humor and control. And Harriet Sansom Harris, in a critical, but small role, is sadly hysterical; you both feel for this lost woman and laugh at her.
Phantom Thread isn’t going to resonate with a wide audience. It is a highly personal view of the creative impulse at the far edge of genius, something that most people just don’t think about. Making it manifest has been done before (in The Muse, for example, or Ruby Sparks), though never quite like this.
Perhaps I am being an apologist for a flawed romance story, but I don’t think so. If you are looking for something a bit more straightforward, you’ll likely be disappointed. If, however, you’re a fan of haute couture or Anderson himself or are fascinated by the root of creativity, you will enjoy this half-fantastical journey, not to mention a chance to see Lewis’s farewell performance (maybe) on screen.