Going into Phantom Thread, I expected a gorgeous period drama starring Daniel Day-Lewis as an overbearing designer. I expected lots of 1950s beautiful clothes, stylish cinematography, and ugh— yet another look at the tortured relationship between a male artist and his female muse. So, I was very pleasantly surprised when the movie delivered on all of that, but also went a step forward: it gave me female characters to root for.
The first comes in the form of Cyril (Leslie Manville), Reynolds Woodcock's (Day-Lewis) sister and business partner. Cyril suffers no fools (her caustic one liners and icy facial expressions are actually reason enough to see the movie). She's given her life to her brother's artistic success, but she's also the one person he can't control or do without — until Alma comes along.
Phantom Thread may be Daniel Day Lewis' swan song, but Vicky Krieps, the Luxembourg-born actress who plays Alma, Woodcock's muse and romantic interest, is the breakout star of this film. The many headlines calling her Lewis' last leading lady have got it backwards — he's her leading man.
The two meet in a cafe near the Woodcocks' country estate. Alma is a waitress; Reynolds wants a mega-breakfast (seriously, his order is out of this world). Something about her draws him in, and they end up having dinner. After that, they wind up back at the house, where he gives her a private fitting (that's not innuendo, he actually takes her measurements). So, far this could be the opening moments of mother! But something shifts when, after moving into Reynolds' London house and atelier, Alma realises that she doesn't quite fit in this life. In the traditional scenario, the muse would mould to the master. Alma, on the other hand, takes a vastly different approach, and one that definitely changes the game. (I won't spoil you with the details, but let's just say it's a radical move.) This subversion of expectations is actually what drew Krieps to the project.
"As I see it, [the film] shows you that in the end it’s a dance between genders," she said in an interview with Refinery29. "It’s not so much the battle of the sexes, but it’s a dance. And it’s about this dance staying vivid, and staying alive, and staying honest, which is difficult because [when there's] a power struggle you’re always manipulating, and you’re not honest anymore. And that’s what Alma’s trying [to do] with her little counter attack. She’s trying to make it honest again between the two.”
It was a challenging role for Krieps, who says that she had to remind herself not to bring modern values to a character rooted in a time where patriarchal dominance wasn't second-guessed.. “As a woman from our days, if you read a character in the '50s, it’s difficult because the women then were obliged to be a certain way, and stay in [their] box. [It was hard] for me to try to embrace this, and be tolerant, and get my own opinion out of the way, and to practice my patience. Because that’s how I think women were dealing with it at the time. That’s how Alma’s dealing with it — being patient and restrained. Nowadays we would be more reactive.”
Still, when Alma does react, it's with a force that feels like a feminist battlecry, albeit one that remains swathed in the silk and petticoats of its time. “One woman said: ‘Alma really kicks ass!’ and I found that really funny because it’s not at all ‘50s," Krieps recalled. "But she does, in her way. The difference is that she does it in such subtle ways, but in this time, and especially in the world of Reynolds, it’s already big. I find her very emancipated."
The relationship between Reynolds and Alma is certainly the driving force of the film, but just as compelling is the dynamic that develops between Alma and Cyril. If Alma is an iron fist in a kid glove, Cyril is the opposite. And yet the two women have a complex rapport that so often gets obscured in film, in favour of the much easier to digest female feud trope. Cyril, so often tasked with breaking up with Reynolds muse du jour for him, comes to respect and even admire Alma, who returns the feeling. These two women both care for the same man, but instead of pitting them against each other, it lifts them up. It's this added nuance that makes the film feel like it's rooting for its women just as much as its difficult male genius.
“In the beginning, I think what the movie is trying to play with is the idea of them being enemies, and maybe they are, but in the end, again, it’s not about who’s winning but it’s about the dialogue," Krieps explained. "There was a point where it almost felt as if the ghost of [Alma’s] mother and the ghost of Cyril’s mother were coming out and making it work, and the two women were relying on all the other women behind them. For me, it’s a movie about women and about womanhood, and about how women are these secret societies."
It's a sentiment that Krieps has experienced before in her own life. She shared an anecdote about sitting at the dinner table as a child, and watching the men go off to do manly things, leaving the women behind. "It was like a world behind the world that comes out only when the men are gone," she said. "My aunts and my grandmother, they actually rule — and if you would see the men in my family, they are very macho. It stayed with me since. The world has changed now, but I think you can still say that this is something that’s true."
For that reason, Krieps hopes that women will take a cue from Alma and Cyril, and come out of the film feeling good about themselves. "Women should embrace who they are," she said. "[It's] not [about] trying to get approval, neither by the fashion industry, nor by their husband, or their boyfriend, but only by their own feeling."
Phantom Thread is out now.