Project Runway is not just another reality competition show. It’s a dedicated and respectful look at the artistic process and it uses the “reality competition” format to highlight the relationship between personality and creativity. But it’s about fashion, one of the most widely misunderstood (and often looked down upon) artistic media, so it’s not often described that way. Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest treasure, Phantom Thread, is also about fashion. But it’s so rich, grandly formed and impeccably realized that it’s not likely to earn the criticisms of frivolity that are so often lobbed at those preoccupied with clothing and style. Maybe this will be the thing to convince people to take the art form seriously. Or, at the very least, maybe it will get men to go back to wearing jackets that actually cover their asses.
Daniel Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a superlatively high-end 1950s London dressmaker (he would likely receive the term “fashion designer” indignantly). He lives and works in a well-appointed townhouse, spending his days with a phalanx of monastically quiet seamstresses and his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), who manages his business affairs. When he meets a charming and headstrong waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps), he quickly woos her. Whether Reynolds is interested in Alma romantically or simply as a model and muse for his work is unclear and things don’t become any less so when she moves in with him. Instead, an intellectual struggle ensues between Alma, who wants to define her role in the household, and Reynolds, whose intense fastidiousness requires that he bend everything in his world to his will.
It’s a gargantuan battle but, as Reynolds’ work necessitates a delicate ecosystem filled with delicate things, it’s an internalized one. Anderson reflects this in the sound design. The actors’ voices, in particular, sound like they’re whispering into microphones pressed right up against their lips. It’s hushed and overwhelming at the same time. The cinematography (apparently by Anderson himself) is no different. It helps make Phantom Thread the most tactile period piece since Todd Haynes’ Carol (even Jonny Greenwood’s score often sounds like someone running their finger around the rim of a crystal glass). The hazy, gauzy aesthetic clouds things up, suggesting how Alma’s presence has frustrated Reynolds and vice versa. This dual-subjectivity is present in Anderson’s shot choices and editing. When Reynolds is lying in bed, watching Alma cross back and forth through the room, the camera regards her from roughly his point of view. But with a quick, only subtly jarring jump cut, we immediately understand that, though we are still looking at her, we have changed to her perspective in the blink of an eye. This dance continues throughout.
Reynolds’ skill as a designer—his genius, even—is never in doubt. But the nature of his medium is that, when he’s done with a dress, it becomes somebody else’s. Having just spent a paragraph inferring intent from Anderson’s filmmaking choices, it’s easy to see this as a bit of self-commentary, an artist in conversation with an audience that often adores him but can never know him completely. When a wealthy client acts boorishly in one of Reynolds’ designs and Alma whispers to him, “She doesn’t deserve it. It’s your work,” perhaps Anderson is dreaming up an ally who truly understands. Or, more likely, perhaps Alma just knows how to work Reynolds.
In most cases, though, Reynolds is the one doing the manipulating. He’s sweet, soft-spoken, sensitive and kind yet he ultimately serves only himself. It’s an oddly relevant depiction of how seemingly nice and well-respected figures can get away with abusing their power. It’s also a look at what George Costanza would sarcastically called “the delicate genius” and how far we’ll go in letting especially talented people have their own way.
If it were just a list of treatises on the artistic character, though, Phantom Thread wouldn’t be nearly as good as it is (it’s Anderson’s best since There Will Be Blood, and the intervening films haven’t exactly been duds). It’s a heightening and increasingly perverse exchange of mental gamesmanship and it’s no less thrilling because it plays out surrounded by cloth and lace. Fashion is art and art, after all, is life. That’s about the right size backdrop for an achievement as towering as this one.