Plot points for Phantom Thread will be discussed below; spoilers, etc.
If Boogie Nights is, at least in part, about the triumph of commerce over art and There Will Be Blood is about the triumph of commerce over religion in the American psyche, I think it's fair to say that Phantom Thread is the Paul Thomas Anderson film in which commerce has finally met its match: love does indeed conquer all.
Granted, it's a sick, twisted kind of love—the kind of love only an obsessive can manage and only an obsessive can return. Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is one of the great couture dressmakers in all of London, sewing for royalty and high society doyennes alike. His art is all that matters to him, and concentrating on it takes precedence above all else. Reynolds is fastidious and fussy, getting crotchety when his morning routine is interrupted by too many questions or too-loud chewing. He lives with his stiffly mannered sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), who minds the business affairs and dismisses his lovers when they are no longer needed.
Following one such dismissal, Reynolds leaves for the countryside and comes across Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress whose charm fills him with a ravenous hunger. Hunger is a stand-in for lust throughout Phantom Thread: Reynolds orders a breakfast fit for three men from Alma; he mentions food again before getting ready to fit a Belgian princess for her wedding dress; and then, at film's end, he willingly chows down on a dish he knows to be dangerous so Alma, like a mother would a child, can nurse him back to health.
There are all sorts of odd undercurrents running through Phantom Thread, the strangest of which is Woodcock's Oedipal obsession with his mother. She seems to be literally haunting the place—Woodcock sees a vision of her while in a delirious state, yes, but note also the door that opens of its own accord early on in his townhouse when he suggests her spirit is near—and Alma may or may not be her reincarnation. Either way, it's love, albeit of the strangest, funniest sort.
And Phantom Thread is deeply funny, though it took two viewings for the comedy to truly sink in. It doesn't have jokes, in the traditional sense of the word; the laughs derive from little flickers of frustration and joy in Day-Lewis's face, the ways in which Krieps keeps poking at him ever so slightly, slipping little barbs in here and there. Day-Lewis and Krieps both deserve every ounce of praise they're getting for this film, having delivered two of the most nuanced, remarkable performances I've seen this year. They're a pleasure to watch onscreen together; they feel … real. And really happy. The downturn in his business that comes with focusing on something other than the work of dressmaking is worth it, poisonings and all.
Anderson is no stranger to romantic comedies. His Punch-Drunk Love is a fabulous deconstruction of the genre, a glimpse into a world in which the tics of the romcom that we chuckle at—casual violence, henpecking from busybody relatives—are made terrifyingly real. Phantom Thread is more restrained than that (Day-Lewis's brand of humor is far subtler than Adam Sandler's, at least when he's not playing Bill the Butcher or Daniel Plainview), but it is still a deeply perceptive comedy about the nature of romantic relationships and the awkwardness of their appearance to outside admirers.