Someone once said that fairy tales don't teach children about monsters, they teach them that monsters can be slain. In some stories though, it's not always clear who the monster is. Sometimes they're superficially the most appealing people around.
Paul Thomas Anderson's gorgeous, troubling, occasionally funny film, Phantom Thread (2017), is the kind of fairy tale I suspect novelist Patricia Highsmith, who was fond of criminals, might have liked. It's about poison (used not to kill but to bring people to life) and love and families, blessings and curses, fashion and frailty, and – perhaps above all – brides (four of them), be they dead, drunk, enigmatic or royal.
The man at the heart of this story, a fashion designer in 1950s London, goes by the name of 'Reynolds Woodcock'. He's played with customary brilliance by Daniel Day-Lewis, who worked on the script with the director. Woodcock's surname is the only unsubtle thing in a film so drenched in restraint that its first (fully clothed) kiss arrives like a cyclone. Reynolds is a fastidious, controlling monster: the kind of fellow who murmurs with great delicacy over the extended hand of a princess, wears pink socks and trims his nasal hair. He also flies into a rage over breakfast when his lover, Alma (Vicky Krieps), butters her toast too vigorously. 'It's as if you rode a horse across the room' he bellows. 'It's too much movement at breakfast!' I suspect it's no coincidence that Alma was the name of both Alfred Hitchcock's and Gustav Mahler's wives. The latter – who, as well as being something of a heart-breaker, was a composer, author and editor – inspired some of Oskar Kokoschka's more frenzied paintings, later married the architect Walter Gropius and then the novelist Franz Werfel. In other words, it's a name as loaded as a sniper's pistol. And, like a sniper, it soon transpires that this Alma knows how to protect herself.
Reynolds is a fastidious, controlling monster: the kind who murmurs with delicacy over the extended hand of a princess, wears pink socks and trims his nasal hair.
That said, this Alma is also something of a cipher: a waitress from elsewhere who becomes a muse. Reynolds is given a profession, a family, a home: all Alma has is a vague Mittel-European accent, the looks of a young Marlene Dietrich and a smile to melt the sternest of hearts. What we learn of Alma could be written on a postage stamp: her mother's eyes were green and, in a fleeting moment, when a man mentions visas sold to Jews, something like grief shades her face. Her raison d'être in Phantom Thread is to never leave the side of Reynolds, who is roughly twice her age. She wants to possess him, to soften him. This stereotyping is troubling: the history of film is full of young women cast as beautiful enigmas who are defined by their relationship with older men. Especially in this day and age, do we really need another?
Reynolds, a man with a voracious appetite, meets Alma in a café in an anonymous English sea-side town. She is the stumbling, blushing waitress, he the elegant customer. He orders an enormous breakfast and asks her out for dinner; she beams at him in acquiescence. 'Run while you can,' you think. He's a wolf in wolf's clothing; she wears a red dress: it's hard not to think of Little Red Riding Hood. At dinner, he rubs her lipstick off, declaring that he wants to see her more clearly; despite his desire, the conversation is all about him. Within minutes, he's told her that he wears a lock of his mother's hair by his heart and lives with his unmarried sister, Cyril (played with great restraint by a mesmerizing Lesley Manville). He looks at Alma wordlessly in the firelight, already in love, or something like it. It's at this point that it becomes apparent that this waitress is no walkover. 'If you want to have a staring contest with me', she says, with a steely sweetness, 'you will lose'.
The subtlety and range of Vicky Krieps's performance is extraordinary – despite her minimal dialogue and her character's lack of context.
They go to Reynold's house, where they are joined by the creepy Cyril, who, without introduction, leans in and smells Alma. 'Sherry and lemon juice,' she whispers. Alma, startled, replies: 'Yes, we had fish for dinner.' The wolf has a sister. Before the evening is out, these sinister siblings have taken Alma's measure – literally, with a dressmaker's tape. Reynolds wants to make her a new robe. He remarks, 'You have no breasts', before declaring 'It's my job to give you some. If I choose to.' What they haven't realized, however, is that Alma is far more than the sum of her fetching parts. If there's a moral to this strange tale, it's this: old men may like to possess young women but some young women are more than capable of looking after themselves.
The subtlety and range of Vicky Krieps's performance is extraordinary. Despite her minimal dialogue and her character's lack of context, Alma's stubborn, complex personality leaps off the screen. When the credits rolled I felt deprived. I wanted to ask her things. Like where she was from and what had happened to her. And what she saw in Reynolds.
The lush textures of Phantom Thread are not reserved for the dressmaker's cloth. The film is ravishing: full of dusty pinks and thick, dark purples; light dissolving through white curtains. A thousand balloons fall on a new year's party like Technicolor tears; sleek cars drive through indigo light and slate grey skies as crisp as taffeta dissolve into bedrooms glazed in bleached gold. Flowers bloom in every interior. Mist drifts off the sea and segues into cigarette smoke softening the gilded edges of the kind of restaurant you dream of eating in every night, as long as you had the clothes; but, in the blink of an eye, you've woken up and the cigarette smoke has become the steam erupting from a kettle for a London breakfast.
All of this is accompanied by a soundtrack of glorious, romantic pastiche by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. His score controls the mood of the film as tightly as the corsets that nip the waists of the hungry models gliding through the Bloomsbury house, where much of the action is set. It's music masquerading as memory: the kind you imagine might have drifted over gardens heavy with perfume in the south of France long before you were born. Is that a Nelson Riddle tune? Bill Evans on piano? Ben Webster's sax? A snatch of Bach or the echo of Satie? Did Chet Baker just mumble something? This lovely, phony music filled me with a yearning for a better, more gracious life. It also made me think I should dress up more.
Phantom Thread is as ludicrous and funny in a dead-pan sort of a way as it is serious. (Transposing to the Alps Alma's aptitude for eating breakfast loudly and thus vexing Reynolds in the second part of the film is nothing short of genius.) At times it is moving, even as it tells us nothing about humanity that we don't already know: that we muddle through life, a mystery to each other and ourselves. That we're irritating and emotional and contrary and occasionally very dangerous. Oh, and that nice clothes make us look better. Perhaps it's a simple tale, after all.
Phantom Thread is currently playing in UK cinemas. It has been nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Score and Best Costume Design for the forthcoming 90th Academy Awards 2018.
Main image: Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread, 2017, film still. Courtesy: Focus Features
Jennifer Higgie is editor at large of frieze, the presenter of the frieze podcast Bow Down: Women in Art History and is currently writing a book on historic self-portraits by women, The Mirror & The Palette.