Daniel Day-Lewis resembles an Easter Island sculpture crossed with a handsomely groomed Adonis in "Phantom Thread," Paul Thomas Anderson's ode to extravagance, texture, tyrannical auteurism and its most ingenious subversions.
Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a sought-after dress designer in 1950s London whose clients - mostly wealthy matrons - see Woodcock's creations less as pretty dresses than a crucial part of their female armamentarium: "I feel like it will give me courage," one of his customers says of an evening gown.
To unleash and fuel his inspiration, Woodcock has amassed a collection of daily rites, habits and superstitions: a strict regimen of silence, meticulously prepared meals and hushed concentration that has made marriage an impossibility. He lives with his devoted sister and factotum, Cyril (Lesley Manville), and a series of women who tend to be quietly eased out when they demand too much time and attention or dare to speak during Woodcock's monastic creative routine.
Although Woodcock has disposed of his latest romantic liaison as "Phantom Thread" opens, his next conquest presents herself when he stops for a meal in the country and orders a ploughman's breakfast from a bright-eyed waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps). By the time he's completed his compulsively specific order, the mutual seduction is complete, and the stylish, enigmatic, ultimately perversely playful game is afoot.
What ensues is a delicious slice of teatime gothic reminiscent of "Rebecca" and "Suspicion," wherein love and sexual attraction become vectors for mistrust, battles of wills and power dialectics of Hegelian proportions. Alma may initially present herself as mere odalisque to be molded and shaped by the Great Man. But soon enough, she has invaded the sanctum sanctorum of Woodcock's self-absorbed genius, engaging in the kind of subterfuges and small rebellions that are so often the only recourse of someone relegated to the role of muse and little else.
"Phantom Thread" is such an indulgence to watch - it's such an ode to pleasure and beauty, cinematic and otherwise - that it's difficult to pinpoint why it isn't necessarily satisfying. It might simply be that Anderson's surpassing strengths as a filmmaker don't necessarily serve the psychodrama on offer.
If "Phantom Thread" isn't exactly a narrative triumph, it still manages to deliver. It's an enchanting, eventually mischievous meditation on the lengths to which we go to control and camouflage our most intimate, undefended desires.
ann hornaday, THE washington post