Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread

Behind Every Great Man…


With an elegance befitting its subject, Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterful Phantom Thread tells the story of a troubled dressmaker and his latest muse. It is a film about craft and workmanship, yes, but also one of the most unique and artfully filmed love stories of the past decade.

Rating: 9/11


The dressmaker has a complicated relationship with women. There are three in his life: one in spirit (his deceased mother), one constantly (his sister) and one ephemerally (his muse). When he tires of his current muse, as he always does, his sister kicks her to the curb and he absconds to the countryside to find a new one. He has remarkable success at it, not just because he is handsome and self-assured but because he holds himself with an air that suggests he has something more to offer a willing woman.

His name is Reynolds Woodcock, and he is played by Daniel Day-Lewis in what we are told is to be his final performance. How fitting, then, that of the many characters he’s embodied in the last 35 years this one would seem closest to his actual self. I can’t speak for their personalities, but Woodcock’s voice has the same light, unassuming lilt to it of Day-Lewis’ own, with a mild English accent that suggests sophistication masking a deep need to exert his will. Here is a man entirely unused to not to getting his own way, a man who has earned tremendous respect as a fashion designer largely as a result of the subordination of much younger women.

His sister Cyril (a simmering Lesley Manville) understands this entirely. She makes every possible effort to ensure that her brother is afforded comfort in his routines and particularities. In this sense, she is her brother’s keeper, and formidable in a way that both frightens and comforts him. Then Alma (Vicky Krieps) comes along to upset the apple cart, as it were. Reynolds spies her waitressing at a diner one morning, invites her to dinner and, in no time at all, is taking her measurements so that he might fit her for a dress. A gamut of emotions crosses Alma’s face over the course of this process, and we too are caught up in this whirlwind of attention and splendour. The difference is, because of where this tale began, we know how it ends.

In this way, Phantom Thread amounts to something of a love story, though one quite unlike any other that I’ve seen in a long while. It submits to us the idea that there are professions and, indeed, people that take very unkindly to compromise, which is the bedrock of a successful relationship. How, then, is one to love another person they’re engaged in an occupational circumstance with? We watch, over the course of the film, as Alma acquiesces to Reynolds’ every demand, we continue watching as that very willingness robs him of his love for her. Her submissiveness is necessary for him to do his work, but it ultimately makes Reynolds grow bored of Alma, as has happened with countless others.

Alma’s solution – which is hard to see as such, at the time – is to generate compromise between them. I won’t say how, but she finds a devious way to rupture the power dynamic that binds her and Reynolds, threatening his livelihood and infiltrating on Cyril’s sovereignty. Are her actions selfish, borne from a need to feel that she is a necessary part of Reynolds’ life? Or are they for his own sake, an adjustment foisted upon a man who is consumed by his work and dismissive of the need for long-term companionship?

In telling this story, Paul Thomas Anderson – the most accomplished American director of the last twenty years – relaxes his usual exuberance. He’s a filmmaker known for his astounding long takes and narrative excesses, but that style would betray the intimate essence of Phantom Thread. Here, he lets his camera passively observe what unfolds instead of making it an active participant. Tension generates not from pyrotechnics but circumstance, such as when Reynolds becomes a blustery mess behind-the-scenes of one of his fashion previews, or the agonisingly drawn-out sequence of Alma preparing him an omelette near the end of the film.

Strangely enough, Phantom Thread does have something of a happy ending, just not in the way most movies have conditioned us to think of one. It asks us to consider that the coupling of two human beings is a fool’s errand to begin with, and especially so when one person holds all the cards in the deck. Dirty tricks and underhandedness might not seem conducive to a healthy relationship, but it all depends on the people in question and the specifics of what has brought them together.

Consider the film’s startling centrepiece, where Reynolds has become convinced that Alma has set about to ruin his life and disrupt his creative process, simply because she has cooked him a surprise diner. He can’t imagine a world in which Alma exerting influence over his life would result in his betterment, yet by the film’s conclusion I’d be willing to bet his tone has changed dramatically on the matter. I can’t necessarily say that it’s for the best but, then, who can?

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