Though this writer likes to think of English as the world’s biggest playground, there are moments when the language fails me. I need a masculine equivalent for “diva,” complete with all its pejorative subtext, and there doesn’t seem to be one. (In Italian, apparently, one can call an outstanding male opera singer a divo, but that doesn’t quite serve my purpose.) A feminist cannot help wondering why not. Is it simply so socially acceptable for a man to be picky and demanding that it occurs to no one to coin a term for it, whereas such behavior in women is automatically seen as beyond the pale?
Let’s put it this way: If you’ve ever been in the employ of a control freak of any gender – or worse, been romantically involved with one – Reynolds Woodcock, the lead character in Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, Phantom Thread, is going to weird you out. I won’t call him the protagonist, because Woodcock’s personality is so off-putting that no amount of artistic genius or correspondingly acute angst is going to be enough to draw the average audience member into any state resembling empathy. He’s mesmerizing, certainly; but that has mostly to do with the fact that he’s being portrayed by the great Daniel Day-Lewis, who, in his typically compulsive, hands-on approach to tackling a character, actually learned to sew evening gowns in order to portray an elite 1950s English fashion designer.
The character does not lack a capacity for charm, but it’s sporadically and abstemiously flexed. We first get to see it when, burned out after completing a commission for one of his aristocratic clients, Woodcock arrives in a seaside hotel dining room and fixes his hungry gaze upon one of the waitresses. Her name is Alma Elson, and we are never told her nationality; she is foreign and multilingual, and the native accent of the actress, Vicky Krieps, is Luxembourgian. No matter. Alma has a fresh, luminous, working-class sort of beauty that makes Reynolds’ crabbed soul light up – and even show a spark of warmth – the moment he sees her.
Meeting Alma is a very good thing for the audience, as well, because we direly need a second point-of-view to get into the artist’s story. Krieps is a relatively unknown quantity with only minor film roles to her previous credit, but she is a real find, holding her own magnificently on a cinematic battlefield with the formidable Day-Lewis. She occasionally gets a bit of narration, in cutaways to a fireside conversation with another character, at first offscreen, who turns out to be a doctor played by Brian Gleeson. And indeed, the viewer’s sympathy lies primarily with Alma, who becomes the latest in a series of Muses adopted (and usually swiftly discarded) by the artist whose aesthetic standards are so impossibly lofty as to outstrip any mere mortal companionship.
Alma quickly learns that Reynolds has zero tolerance for imperfection – or for interruptions of any kind to his household routine, which throw him off his creative stride. But it’s telling that the moment when she first catches his eye is a moment when she stumbles while carrying a tray of food. There is a piece buried deep inside Reynolds that craves her occasional awkwardness, the sense of unpredictability that she brings into his life. Alma somehow gets this, and sets her cap toward leveling the playing field between them. How she goes about it is where Phantom Thread attains a whole new level of creepy, and much too spoilery to discuss further, except to note that this movie is very much Anderson’s homage to atmospheric Hitchcockian mysteries of the ’40s such as Rebecca and Suspicion.
The tale has its Mrs. Danvers as well, in Reynolds’ severe and ever-present sister/business partner, Cyril. Lesley Manville is wonderfully acerbic in the part, giving us a character who comes off at first as the ominous fly in the blissful new couple’s ointment and eventually as a potential ally in Alma’s campaign to wear down Reynolds’ uncompromisingly sharp edges. Looming in both siblings’ background is also a dead mother, locks of whose hair the designer secretly stitches into his own clothing. She’s no stuffed Mrs. Bates, but her memory is definitely part of the toxic family dynamic that unspools here.
To the consternation of his admirers, Daniel Day-Lewis has publicly pronounced himself so depressed by his immersion in the character of Reynolds Woodcock that he is done with acting for good. One can sort of see why, although this is far from the most morally bankrupt part he has ever assayed. We can only hope that the actor eventually shakes off the gloom and finds another assignment that intrigues him irresistibly. Meanwhile, we have much careful stitchery to ponder here.