Reynolds Woodcock, a couturier plying his trade in London in the 1950s, has a habit of sewing secret messages into his garments. (“Never cursed” is the blessing stitched in lavender thread that he slips into the hem of a wedding gown commissioned by a Middle Eastern princess.) These invisible traces of his hand — hidden meanings in the literal sense — signify that his dresses are more than luxurious commodities. They are works of art, obscurely and yet unmistakably saturated with the passion and personality of their creator.
It hardly seems an accident that Paul Thomas Anderson has inscribed his monogram in the title of his eighth feature, “Phantom Thread,” which chronicles a few chapters in Reynolds’s fictional life and career. This is a profoundly, intensely, extravagantly personal film. I don’t mean autobiographical. I know little and care less about the details of Mr. Anderson’s personal life. Whether or not his longtime partner, the actress and comedian Maya Rudolph, has ever cooked him a mushroom omelet is a matter of complete indifference to me.
Not every movie about an artist is a self-portrait of its director, but “Phantom Thread” almost offhandedly lays out intriguing analogies between Reynolds’s métier and Mr. Anderson’s. The fashion designer, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, turns drawings into drama, manipulating color and movement and the human form to construct a material object that is also artificial, idealized and fantastical — a commodity that impersonates a dream. He is assisted in his labor by a crew of disciplined artisans who cut and stitch his ideas into usable form. (This may be the place to note that the editor of “Phantom Thread” is Dylan Tichenor. Mark Bridges designed the costumes. Mr. Anderson served as his own director of photography.)
The result of this collective toil is a singular vessel for beauty and pleasure, subject to the whims of the market and the vagaries of taste and therefore easy to trivialize. It’s just a movie. It’s just a dress. When Reynolds’s sister and business partner, Cyril (Lesley Manville), informs him of the departure of a longtime client for a house she regards as more “chic,” the designer has a small tantrum. The word disgusts him, not least because it expresses the vulgarity of the environment in which he must pursue his lofty visions.
That discrepancy — between an exquisite sensibility and a world of grubby, shallow materialism — may explain some of the temperamental quirks that Reynolds shares with his creator. Over the years, especially since “There Will Be Blood,” Mr. Anderson has repeatedly manifested his indifference to the fashions and conventions of contemporary filmmaking. In particular, he disdains the careful, self-conscious husbanding of themes and messages that preoccupies many of his peers. He always seems more interested in what his movies are than in what they’re about or who they might be for.
“Phantom Thread” is not as hermetic as “The Master” or as loosey-goosey as “Inherent Vice.” It’s a chamber piece, romantic and baroque in equal measure, with arresting harmonies and ravishing changes of tone. (This might be the place to note that Jonny Greenwood composed the score). Like “There Will Be Blood,” it casts Mr. Day-Lewis as an avatar of obsession, driven this time by the pursuit of aesthetic perfection rather than money and power. But whereas Daniel Plainview in the earlier film was a vector of pure, demonic ambition, Reynolds Woodcock bemusedly discovers himself to be one leg of a complicated emotional triangle.
The other sides are Cyril and Alma (Vicky Krieps), a non-British waitress in a provincial British restaurant who becomes Reynolds’s model, mistress and muse. Usually this is a temporary assignment. We briefly meet Alma’s predecessor, Johanna (Camilla Rutherford), who annoys Reynolds at breakfast and is dismissed offscreen by Cyril, with one of Reynold’s old dresses as a consolation prize. Johanna’s sin is to request some of her lover’s attention, a demand he regards as intrusive and distracting.