The eighth film from director Paul Thomas Anderson is a masterfully told love story, one that's as sweet and strange as you'd expect from the maker of "Punch Drunk Love." Set in 1950s London, "Phantom Thread" tells the story of renowned (and impeccably named) high-end dress designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), and the woman with whom he finds a surprising connection. It's a subversive and peculiar romance with a Gothic tinge, as writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson plays with our expectations of how we assume a typical "great man" story might play out.
Shortly after his last paramour has left (or rather, been removed from) the picture, Reynolds meets Alma (Luxembourg actress Vicky Krieps) when she serves him breakfast at a small inn during a countryside getaway. Immediately taken with the young woman, he asks her to join him for dinner. From the start, Reynolds makes no attempt to hide his demanding nature; during their meal he wipes off her lipstick, stating that he likes "to see who I'm talking to." She doesn't seem to mind.
Soon Alma's become his muse, modeling his clothes and being spirited off to live in the House of Woodcock along with Reynolds' sister and steely business partner, Cyril (Lesley Manville, channeling Mrs. Danvers). A man of considerable ego, Reynolds possesses an infantile fussiness and is quick to anger when anyone dares disrupt his routine. But Alma finds herself growing accustomed to his fastidious nature and particular appetites -- Reynolds' hunger becomes a key component of their relationship.
Cyril believes Alma to be just the latest in Reynolds' line of female companions, women who Cyril -- in addition to running her brother's business affairs -- is tasked with dismissing once they've outstayed their use. But Alma has a rebellious streak, refusing to play the role she's been assigned. During their first evening together, she notices his intense gaze and tells Reynolds matter-of-factly: "If you want to have a staring contest with me, you'll lose."
These unanticipated reservoirs of strength lead her to some unexpected methods in making herself an indispensable part his life. The rest of the film revolves around the shifting power dynamics between Alma and Reynolds as they find a certain parity in their psychological gamesmanship and constant jockeying for position.
Taking place in the world of haute couture, the film shares that meticulousness in its construction. There's an attention to every detail, from the lovely costumes designed by Mark Bridges, to Jonny Greenwood's gorgeous orchestral score, and the beautifully understated 35mm cinematography by Anderson. But there's a lightness and a playfulness to Anderson's storytelling; the film has a devilish sense of humor that's frequently laugh-out-loud funny.
At its center are three perfectly-calibrated performances. Day-Lewis plays Reynolds with a disarming charisma despite the character's dark, demanding nature. There's a warmth to Reynolds when he's in one of his good moods that comes out just often enough to draw you in. It's a marvelous performance, and if the actor's claims of retiring after this film are to be believed, he'll have gone out on a high note. But really, it's the women who truly shine. Krieps goes toe-to-toe with Day-Lewis and is every bit his match. Manville is a master of withering glances and the cutting retort, practically stealing every scene in which she appears.
In telling this most unusual romance, Anderson draws inspiration from early David Lean films like "The Passionate Friends" and "Brief Encounter," and injects a streak of Hitchcockian menace. There's also a bit of "The Duke of Burgundy" to the story, exploring as it does the odd compromises that are required in any long-term relationship. "Phantom Thread" would make an excellent companion to "mother!," another cautionary tale about entering into a relationship with a temperamental creative type. It feels personal and, like Darren Aronofsky, the filmmaker has something to say (and perhaps apologize for) about the realities of living with someone in constant pursuit of perfection.
This isn't to say the film is entirely homage; it feels like something all its own. It's a tribute to the weird little worlds couples create for themselves, and as it reveals its unexpected layers, "Phantom Thread" becomes something deeply strange, oddly charming, and immensely satisfying on every level.