It may be hard to believe, but the most high-stakes drama in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Phantom Thread" involves breakfast. But that's because those breakfasts also involve Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a professional narcissist and couturier to 1950s royalty.
Reynolds has a thing about breakfast. He often assays the future of a romantic relationship by how loudly the woman he's dating is buttering her toast. Then again, Reynolds has a thing about everything, it seems, and everything he has a thing about is pretty unusual.
Most important and telling: He likes his women to be like living mannequins, dolls if you will, who he can dress and groom and put away on a shelf when the wind blows his attention elsewhere. The behavior explains why, early in the film, he perks up so much to a rural waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps), whose features seem fairly plain at first. Reynolds seduces her in a day, setting her up in his posh London house seemingly by the end of the weekend.
Alma is perfect. "I feel I've been looking for you all my life," Reynolds tells her on a date walking lush green cliffs perched against the sea. What he forgets to mention is that this isn't the first time he's found what he's looking for, a woman to model his clothes and tend to any other needs — but only when needed.
It may be harder to believe all this is presented by Anderson as comedy. That comedy is extremely dry and develops very slowly, but comedy it is. It builds upon itself and, if you're lucky, a well-crowded theater, where it crescendos to an avalanche amid the Alps on another date between Reynolds and Alma. Those snowy peaks! So unspoiled and majestic. Alas, Reynolds barely notices, alarmed to distraction by the sound of Alma crunching her morning cereal.
There is one permanent woman in Reynolds life, after the memory of his departed mother of course, who appears as a vision or spirit or something during various scenes. The permanent living woman is Cyril (Lesley Manville), and the more you get to know her, the less doubt you have that Cyril and Reynolds are brother and sister.
By the time they go at it for real, you'll be howling.
These three principal performances may be the most memorable of the year. They are worthy of award consideration, but also simple enjoyment you don't want to miss out on by watching at home with the pause button at hand.
"Phantom Thread" is a slow boil, but it gets hot.
Alma, for example, proves to be one of the best women Reynolds has met at challenging him and living to tell about it the next day. She remains within the house after many transgressions even though we know Reynolds' previous live-in girlfriend was summarily removed for, well, some reason not quite tangible. She simply outlived, sometime in her 20s, her welcome.
Alma overcomes. Alma defies. Alma does things that can't be printed here, mostly because they'd spoil the second half, which launches into an uproarious twist on Alfred Hitchcock's "Rebecca." Anderson has admitted the movie as an influence. Alma is the name of Hitchcock's wife and longtime assistant, and in one scene we see Reynolds gaze on her through a peephole.
The result is a cross between a period piece, a romantic melodrama and a twisty black comedy that does not resolve itself in genre terms. The movie plays with genre but doesn't become an example of one. It's a finely crafted story for Day-Lewis to go out on, if he retires as reported.
Although you can read a lot of Day-Lewis' lengthy career into Reynolds Woodcock, two former roles stand out: Daniel Plainview, grimacing over his obsession in "There Will Be Blood," and Cecil Vyse, the comically pedantic and preening peacock in pince-nez glasses from "A Room with a View," billowing snooty observations.
Reynolds is so naughty, you could imagine someone thinking there could not be a worse time to present a character like him, a brazen womanizer who behaves as if women are little more than mannequins with a pulse. And he tends to get away with it.
But "Phantom Thread" has a surprise tucked into it, for Reynolds and the audience. As we learn through Alma, not all mannequins have to stand for it. (R) 130 min.