For what looks on its refined surface to be a classically styled romantic movie, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread is plenty thorny and weird and unknowable—a lot like love, the director would probably tell you. The film, which has its wide release in the U.S. on January 19, is a tightly-wound chamber piece: Its leading man is a London couturier named Reynolds Woodcock, played by Daniel Day-Lewis of course, whose genius and charm is only matched by his control-freak temper—which is in turn matched, to both his exasperation and beguilement, by the spirit and wit of Alma, a much younger woman and fit model. Played by the exciting newcomer Vicky Krieps, Alma is Woodcock’s equal, and at times his superior, when it comes to their intensely felt relationship. A lifelong bachelor self-conditioned to using up youthful muses like blank scrap paper and discarding them afterwards, Woodcock’s struggle to stay atop the constant seesaw of their power dynamic is among the great thrills of one of Anderson’s more unexpected films.
But even in flaunting convention, some elements of the romance genre should not be ignored: The scenic stroll, the honeymoon-period montage, the excruciating moment of vulnerability. We would miss these if they were left out! Maybe that’s why the clip above is one of Anderson’s favorite scenes in Phantom Thread. It has Alma describing in voice-over her own inadequacies—”I thought my shoulders were too wide; my neck was skinny like a bird; that I had no breasts”—as Woodcock dresses her and takes her on a walk along the English bluffs, robed in the thickest wool. The implication: He makes up for her imperfections with his clothes (some of which Day-Lewis famously sewed himself), and in doing so fulfills his own calling in life—to make women look and feel perfect. It’s the essential tension of their love: she’s the only one who can dare him to be better. And that dare comes with a serious warning attached: “Whatever you do,” Alma tells him, “do it carefully.”
“Funny enough, before I had a story, I had snippets of two characters talking to each other,” Anderson explained of the scene that seeded his film. “Walking along a seaside cliff, getting to know each other… It was very English Gothic romance type of thing to do, to get your hero and heroine on a windblown location professing love and making promises and veiled threats.”
And while it’s not the most hilarious or the most exciting part of the movie—I’d say that one scene, the unexpected dinner Alma prepares for Woodcock, covers both those bases—but it says a lot about what’s come before for Alma and Woodcock, and the roller coaster ahead. “This is love, and it brings strange feelings and large pronouncements,” Anderson said. “Like Bette Davis says, ‘Buckle up, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride…'”