Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2018 film, Phantom Thread, is mesmerizing; it manages to be both delicate and brutal. Straddling that fine line between love and hate, relationships are shown as they are often truly lived: messy, deceptive and even sickly and lovingly dangerous. Psychoanalytical theorists will most certainly have plenty to interpret from what is unreservedly a paired down, slow motion needling dark-wave tour de force.
Daniel Day-Lewis, as Mr Reynolds Woodcock, gives a stunning performance as a hauteur tailor moving in the highest levels of 1950s British haute couture. Moving at a largo pace, dignified and fastidious, Reynolds is a man obsessed with routine, carving out a life of opulence from a strict Cartesian grid. Compartmentalizing every aspect of his life, his London residence, a massive multistory mansion, is divided into working areas for the seamstresses, living quarters and an office for his sister, Cyril Woodcock. Lesley Manville, as Cyril, is cold as stone, calculating and powerful. Unmarried, which for her class and time would have been unusual, this powerful woman runs the family business, whilst Reynolds manages most of the design. Reynolds himself is an aging bachelor, and a sort of echoing background of homosexuality, or bisexuality, runs like a tense cord between him and Cyril. Both are aloof, gradual and deliberative members of the British bourgeoisie, supplying sycophantic aristocrats, movie stars, heiresses and socialites with dazzling dresses from their private atelier and drawing-room runways.
Reynolds needs to get out of London. He is tiring of another female muse, who seems to be a part of a seemingly repetitious, even seasonal series of affairs; therefore, his sister, Cyril inquires, “Shall I ask her to leave?” English propriety: It’s all for the best. Let’s meet in the shire. Sophistication, brutality, dispensable (female) bodies and English upper-class reserve intermingle. Beautifully capturing the English countryside, we are driven at high speeds, gazing from the roof of Reynold’s car; PT Anderson has indeed mastered the camera, he is nothing less than a true auteur. Arriving in a small seaside town, Reynolds meets a beautiful young emigre, Alma Elson played by Vicky Krieps. Instant attraction between Reynolds and Alma leads to a courtship by fire, where he takes her to his country house, proceeds to take her measurements and begins fashioning a dress for her. She’s elfin, deft and fiercely independent, yet initially timorous in a scene that is strikingly objectifying. Measuring tape in hand, Reynolds bruntly says, “You have small breasts;” his sister arrives, closely smelling Alma, her brother’s new find. Sandalwood, sherry, lemon, etc. Cyril’s nose nearly touches Alma; she is standing in her undergarments, body being calculated by the master’s hands. Cyril opens a notebook, Reynolds begins saying Alma’s inches, Cyril takes note; the camera recursively loops between viewing Reynolds’ gaze, Cyril’s marking her notebook and Alma’s bared body.
Initially enamored, Reynolds and Alma find passion, yet this is ground down by his Kant-like need for regularity. A particularly uncomfortable breakfast scene, albeit held in such a low frequency, feels like hearing nails on a chalkboard. The tension is not just palpable, it’s unpalatable. Alma’s buttering of toast disrupts Reynolds, who needs a monastically quiet morning in order to continue his work. His work. His work. His work. Alma protests to Cyril that he is too fussy, but Cyril suggests that Alma take her breakfast after Reynolds has left in future, or better, in her room. Muses are to be seen and not heard, at least not until spoken to. At this point, the reader and the viewer may feel that the film is anachronistic, even indulging in the worst misogynistic tropes of the 1950s. The waiting is important, for PT Anderson’s films always build toward a trajectory that are otherwise than obvious, in mysterious ways.
Reynolds is plagued by his mother’s death. The loss of his mother, who haunts his dreams, causes him to wake crying. He’s a child. Alma knows this is the key to Reynolds, and the game has just begun. You aren’t strong, she says to him repeatedly. Hysterically he lashes out with all sorts of melodrama at a special dinner Alma has made for him, a dinner that violates his schedule. Do you have a gun? Have you come here to kill me? Am I in enemy territory? The boy is out. Oedipus complexly lingers in the back of this film; Sophocles and Freud would have been impressed. Reynolds’ mother is not present until he falls ill. She stands, as a ghost, in the dress he made for her second marriage at the age of 16. Alma has taken a poisonous mushroom, ground a small bit of it and placed this inside his lapsang tea. He needs to slow down a little bit sometimes, she cunningly narrates from the future in a scene interjected into the present. Violently ill, Reynolds turns to Alma for nurture and care. Reminded of his own mortality, and after having a vision of his mother in her wedding dress near the door where Alma is coming from to bring fresh linens and water, Reynolds proposes marriage.
Marriage proves to grind to a similar quotidian authoritarianism, and Alma knows she must do something, again. At their country home, she makes a large omelette of poisoned mushrooms. Leaning towards her as he takes a bite, holding the contents in his mouth, Reynolds smiles, swallows and says “Kiss me before I become ill.” He knew. They are bound together by these rhizomes of maladies and anodynes; controlling, patriarchal cycles are broken by medicinal poison. Mothering and mutual malice combine, by the alchemy of Alma’s haecceity, into the tenderest of endearments. No longer an inamorata, Alma becomes a couturier herself. Needle in lip, adjusting a garment, she oversees a model. It is here that I begin to wonder about Reynolds’ need for a mother figure, and Cyril’s inability to provide her ostensibly heterosexual brother with the supple tenderness needed to foster an advancement of his soul. Alma grows strong in her role, usurping the aging brother-sister duo. She flips the tables, from a working-class immigrant to a genteel dominatrix; her shadow is cast deeply into the psyche of Reynolds’ world and the viewer. Proceeding in a dialectical manner, feminine/masculine, the tectonics shift with the chthonic powers of one woman’s refusal to play the passive muse.
The film builds from a familiar bud, then blossoms like a Venus flytrap, entrapping and entrancing the viewer.
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Featured Image (Vicky Krieps as Alma / Courtesy: https://www.burgkino.at/movie/phantom-thread)