ALMA ELSON is having none of Reynolds Woodcock’s tortured genius. In the new film Phantom Thread, which just got four Oscar nods, Alma (Vicky Krieps) plays a small-town waitress who beguiles Woodcock, a 1950s London couturier (Daniel Day-Lewis). Shortly thereafter she becomes his muse, lover and a member of his household. And, there’s the rub. She may have the ideal figure and have a gorgeous swan neck but she’s a real, live woman who butters her breakfast toast too loudly for the obsessively controlling designer who cringes at the interruptions of his sanctum.
Day-Lewis is imperious, his character loosely based on the likes of designers Cristobal Balenciaga and Karl Lagerfeld. On the other hand Alma seems the picture of sweet with her cherubic face, which calls to mind a young Meryl Streep. But midway into their relationship we realize there’s more to Alma than a pretty face (and body), who has the chutzpah to offer an opinion on Woodcock’s drearily dark floral brocade dress.
Alma: I don’t like the fabric.
Woodcock: Maybe one day you will change your taste.
Alma: Maybe I like my own taste.
Woodcock: Just enough to get you into trouble.
Alma: Perhaps I like trouble.
The film just happens to coincide with sexual harassment as the cause célèbre in today’s culture. Woodcock treats Alma with disdain, and we’re fairly sure she’s not getting equal pay. (Why doesn’t she just leave him; she can get another gig!) But that would be too easy for what director Paul Thomas Anderson has in mind for this plot.
Alma refuses to be a victim; she won’t be kicked to the curb like a previous muse whom Woodcock and his frosty sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) decide they’ll give an old dress in a ridiculous gesture of appeasement. Similarly, as he tires of Alma asserting herself, Woodcock begs Cyril to get rid of her. To his peril, he underestimates this cunning young woman. And, in a memorable scene involving a thimble, a control freak gets a taste of his own medicine.
Perhaps Alma’s best weapon in this power struggle is the crimson sheath she designed for herself. It’s not up to the couture standards of Woodcock, but it’s a refreshing break from the tyranny of too much lace.