A phenomenally fucked-up romantic comedy, Phantom Thread manages to be pitch-black funny and profoundly disconcerting, sometimes within the same scene. Novelistic, mean, and funny, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is unlike anything else out there, and it’s great. At least, I thought so? As the end credits rolled, a distressed lady in front of me huffed out, declaring, “Well, that’s not the kind of love I like.”
Fair enough, lady! But there’s more truth in Phantom Thread’s love—a kind of love that’s as unavoidable as it is frightening and co-dependent—than in most feel-good films’ soulless romances. Phantom Thread’s love is between renowned dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and the significantly younger Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress Woodcock hastily claims as his muse, model, and lover. Woodcock can be charming, but he’s also a colossal asshole—casually cruel, obsessively prim, and ready to lose his shit when things aren’t exactly to his liking. The clever, hopeful Alma is bewildered about how—and if—she should tolerate a man who uses his genius as an excuse for his shittiness. Alma has other challenges, too, from Woodcock’s very close relationship with his terrifying sister (Lesley Manville) to the prancing parade of princesses and socialites who covet Woodcock’s jaw-dropping dresses.
The last time Day-Lewis and Anderson worked together was on There Will Be Blood, and with Woodcock, Day-Lewis—in what’s reportedly his final performance—creates a character as strange, intense, and riveting as Daniel Plainview. (Of course Day-Lewis amazing; Day-Lewis is always so amazing that his amazingness is almost boring.) But Phantom Thread turns out to be Alma’s story, and Krieps not only to goes toe-to-toe with Day-Lewis, but brings sly wit and some legitimately shocking turns to a story that might otherwise fester in cynicism. Anderson bathes many of Woodcock’s scenes in cool, sterile daylight, but Alma is more at home in the soft, ominous glow of a fire; all the while, Jonny Greenwood’s sometimes elegant, sometimes jarring score melds into Schubert and Brahms.
Early on, Woodcock warns Alma that he’s not the marrying kind. “I think it’s the expectations and assumptions of others that cause heartache,” he mansplains, and yeah, true. But Alma is smarter than that: She knows there’s no avoiding love—just as there’s no avoiding the brutal heartache and stomach-churning pain that inevitably come with it.