Opening this weekend at the M.V. Film Center is “Phantom Thread,” starring Daniel Day-Lewis as a British fashion designer named Reynolds Woodcock. Reputed to be Day-Lewis’s last film before retiring, “Phantom Thread” is a must-see if only for the pleasure of watching this three-time Oscar winner at work.
Said to be based on designers Balenciaga and Charles James, Woodcock is not an appealing person. While riding comfortably at the peak of the 1950s London fashion industry, he’s an arrogant and controlling perfectionist. Each dress he creates is intended as a work of art, and woe to anyone who thinks otherwise. A confirmed bachelor, Woodcock seduces women, then discards them like yesterday’s newspaper.
When the viewer meets him, the most important woman in his life is his sister Cecil (Lesley Manville, best known for her work with director Mike Leigh). Cecil may play second banana in the Woodcock house of haute couture, but she is equally as controlling as her brother, and as scary a figure as Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock’s “Rebecca.”
Soon after the viewer sees Woodcock dump his latest attraction, he races off to the country in his fancy Bristol sports car. There he meets Alma (Luxembourger actress Vicky Krieps), a sweet-faced waitress who stumbles on her way to serve a customer. He is charmed, and after ordering enough breakfast for three people, he invites her to dinner. In the next step in what is probably a well-honed routine of conquest, Woodcock designs a gown for her. Alma quickly moves into his London townhouse and becomes his favorite model. In another of the director’s Hitchcockian allusions, it’s worth noting that the name Alma is also that of Hitchcock’s wife.
Along the way, the viewer learns that Woodcock sews a hidden message in each of his gowns, and the title of “Phantom Thread” starts to make sense. The significance of the “phantom” part will follow.
Director Paul Thomas Anderson, who also wrote the film and served as director of photography, wields sound effects like a master. At one breakfast the heightened sound of Alma scraping her toast is like scratching on a blackboard to our maestro. Alma further irritates Woodcock with a Ritz-Carlton pour of her tea. Cecil explains to Alma that Woodcock needs absolute silence at breakfast or his day is ruined. It’s hard to know whether to laugh or be appalled.
As much of an ingénue as Alma may seem, she is a force to be reckoned with. She locks horns with Woodcock over a dinner she plans for the two of them. Serving asparagus, she enrages him with its preparation. Next she devises more sinister culinary ways of asserting herself with him.
In its inside view of the fashion world, “Phantom Thread” is reminiscent of “The First Monday in May,” the 2016 documentary about the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute “China Through the Looking Glass” exhibit. The difference is that the 50s-style gowns Woodcock designs seem rather dull and outdated. That may just be part of the tongue-in-cheek approach Anderson uses in this exquisitely strange film.
Information and tickets for this and other Film Center films are available at mvfilmsociety.com.