“Before making the film, I didn’t know I was going to stop acting,” Daniel Day-Lewis said after completing Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant, chilly chamber piece. “We didn’t realise what we had given birth to. It was hard to live with. And still is.”
It is not for us to psychoanalyse Mr Day-Lewis through his films. But those words take on new meanings when you actually see his work on Phantom Thread. The actor plays a fanatical artist whose perfectionism makes life a quotidian nightmare for circling staff and lovers. He does not have a vision of his late father as Day-Lewis did (metaphorically, he later clarified) during a production of Hamlet, but his mother's ghost does appear to press home a few neuroses.
Am I the only person seeing this?
Daniel shouldn't take it personally. Paul Thomas Anderson has long been invested in the cinema of tyranny. Phantom Thread may, perhaps, complete a trilogy that began with There Will Be Blood (Day-Lewis as demonic prospector) and continued with The Master (Philip Seymour Hoffman as psychotic cult leader).
This time, Day-Lewis suits up as the delightfully named Reynolds Woodcock. A successful couturier in a version of 1950s London untouched by smog or rationing (and, like Narnia or Westeros, apparently at home to no season other than winter), Woodcock instils fear in his staff, awe in his clients and a creepy maternal dominance in his sister Cyril. Played with aloof discipline by the Oscar-nominated Leslie Manville, Cyril is the one who, when Woodcock tires of a current lover, politely asks her to be on her way.
It seems as if this has gone on forever. Austere princesses and spoilt heiresses are constantly spiralling their way up the dizzying staircase – one of many things here that are characters in themselves – to be draped in couture that looks unprepared for the social changes to come.
When, staying at a small hotel by the sea, Reynolds picks up a European waitress named Alma (the charismatic Vicky Krieps) and brings her to his country house, we suspect that another unstoppable cycle has begun. Sure enough, after one of several memorable breakfasts (more on that later), Alma’s cacophonous buttering of toast begins to sandpaper Woodcock’s brain. Cyril prepares her dumping face. But, as an early Chekhovian mushroom over the fireplace has indicated, Alma has the antidote for Reynolds’s toxic masculinity.
The technical élan is so icily persuasive that it's easy to put the film's many quandaries on the long finger. There is perhaps a little too much of Jonny Greenwood's score, but it is so rich and intelligent – often mournful like Schumann, briefly suave like Gil Evans – that few will blame Anderson for laying it on so heavily.
Acting as his own cinematographer, the director shoots mostly in close-up, but finds time for bravura shots such as the one that, Clockwork Orange style, follows Woodcock's car tightly through the damp countryside. The pained Day Lewis, the shrewd Krieps and the strategically silent Manville are each brilliant in their own way.
Those questions do, however, nag stubbornly. Are Woodcock’s dresses supposed to be as vulgar as they appear to the modern eye? Is he now a man out of time? What do we make of an apparently perverse relationship that seems to have so little to do with actual sex?
It is a delight to hear Day-Lewis order Welsh rabbit with poached eggs, bacon, scones, cream, jam “and some sausages”. Nobody orders breakfast more mellifluously. But the film’s obsession with the first meal of the day feels positively maniacal. Is that a joke?
Comparisons with other artists lead us nowhere. There is something of Hitchcock's Rebecca over here and – with genders reversed – a little of Patrick Hamilton's Gaslight over there. The clipped cruelty of the winter-bound characters brings us inexorably to Ingmar Bergman.
But Paul Thomas Anderson ’s sly oddness is all his own. Heck, the thing is nearly a comedy.
Phantom Thread is released on Friday February 2