A brilliant English couturier of the postwar age: fastidious and cantankerous, humourless and preposterous – and heterosexual, in that pre-Chatterley era when being a bachelor and fashion designer wasn’t automatically associated in the public mind with anything else. Daniel Day-Lewis gives us his cinema swansong in this new film from writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson. He is Reynolds Jeremiah Woodcock, celebrated dressmaker to the debutantes of Britain, but now under pressure from the New Look and influences from across the Channel. He treats us to a fine display of temper on the subject of that unforgivably meretricious word: chic.
Just when he is at his lowest, Woodcock falls in love with a shy, maladroit German waitress at the country hotel where he happens to be staying. This is Alma, played by Vicky Krieps. With his connoisseur’s eye, Woodcock sees in her a grace and beauty no one else had noticed, certainly not Alma herself. Dazzled, she comes to live with him as his assistant and model in the central London fashion house over which Woodcock rules with his sister and confidante Cyril, played with enigmatic reserve by Lesley Manville. But, as Woodcock becomes ever more impossible and controlling, submissive Alma must find new, more dysfunctional ways to re-establish her emotional mastery over him.
Day-Lewis gives a performance of almost ridiculously charismatic outrageousness, the sort only he could get away with. He is Hardy Amies and Norman Hartnell with a dash of Tony Armstrong-Jones – certainly Hartnell’s relationship with his sister and business partner Phyllis is evoked here. It’s a study in cult leadership to compare with Anderson’s The Master and a portrait of entrepreneurial loneliness to put alongside his appearance in Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.
Woodcock is a preening exquisite, theatrical, highly strung, with a borderline bizarre speaking voice, sinuous and refined: an acquired style perhaps hinting at a humbler beginning than any he will admit to now. This Woodcock has the etiolated grace of a dancer, the misanthropy of an artist, and also the careless hauteur of the nobleman. It’s the kind of character Day-Lewis has played in other films – the one who nurses a politely unvoiced contempt for the lack of integrity he sees in everything and everyone around him, especially here the vulgar, moneyed women on whose patronage he is forced to rely.
He is the definition of a gentleman: someone who never gives offence accidentally. I couldn’t watch Day-Lewis without grinning all over my face at this creation. But he is not supposed to be funny or camp. Krieps matches this as best she can with an intelligent, subdued naturalism, just as she did playing Jenny Marx in Raoul Peck’s new film The Young Karl Marx. Yet there is no question of who is in the spotlight.
Joseph Losey is an influence, particularly in the superb scene-setting created by production designer Mark Tildesley and Mark Bridges’s costumes. The other influence of course is Hitchcock, with Krieps in the Joan Fontaine role from Rebecca and Day-Lewis the patrician Max de Winter, as played by Olivier. Manville is a combination of Mrs Danvers and Rebecca herself. There are no sugar-rush jukebox 50s hits on the soundtrack to establish the sentimentality of the period, or, for that matter, newspaper hoardings about Suez or Profumo. We stick strictly to a generalised sense of time and place and an orchestral score by Jonny Greenwood with classical pieces.
It all creates a feeling of heightened reality, like a dream, particularly when a madly jealous Woodcock goes looking for Alma at a raucous New Year’s Eve party. But is it a nightmare or a swoon, a reverie?
There is such pure delicious pleasure in this film, in its strangeness, its vehemence, its flourishes of absurdity, carried off with superb elegance. And Woodcock’s sartorial creations have a surreal quality, decadent, like dishes at a Roman banquet. Can this really be Daniel Day-Lewis’s final performance? He’s said that it is, and he is not someone for speaking casually. We have to assume that this is goodbye. Maybe this is how onlookers felt at Nijinsky’s last public performance in 1917, which reputedly made Arthur Rubinstein burst into tears. It’s a wonderful high note for Day-Lewis to end on: I feel a mixture of euphoria and desperate sadness.