It can be frustrating being a movie fan in one of the parts of the country that apparently aren’t worthy of getting all the “awards season” movies on time. It seems like January is primary built to be a dumping ground for all of the films that never made it to town like January in the previous year, like they did on the coast. And, one of the biggest films that frustrated me the most about this phenomena this year was the fact that I had to wait to check out the latest from writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson. I feel like I don’t even have to explain the importance that Anderson has in the world of modern cinema, but Ill at least say that he’s one of my favorite living filmmakers. Aside from some general ambivalence towards Punch Drunk Love I’ve loved every single one of his movies, and they’re some of my favorite films of all time. Every single one of his projects has been worth paying attention to and diving deeply into, so of course I was going to be excited about any story that he decided he wanted to tell. But, that excitement becomes even more palpable when we have a film like Phantom Thread, which just seemed so impossible to figure out. Paul Thomas Anderson doing a period piece about an obsessive fashion designer and featuring Daniel Day-Lewis’ apparent final performance? Yeah, that’s going to get me interested. But then the film started being seen by critics, and no one quite seemed sure what to make of it. I heard it called a psychological thriller, a dark romance, even a Gothic horror story. And that’s one hell of a combination of ideas. I had no idea what to expect from this film, other than a well-made film, and I still don’t quite know what I got, but I know that I liked it.
Phantom Thread follows the story of two people whose lives become inextricably entwined. Alma Elson, a young and somewhat naive waitress, and Reynolds Woodcock, a famous and temperamental fashion designer. Reynolds is extremely highly regarded, and designs dresses and gowns for the high society of Europe, which allows him to be a rather odd person. He’s gruff, ritualistic, and extremely hard to work for. His sister Cyril keeps Reynolds more or less in line, and takes care of the business side of their organization, allowing Reynolds to fully focus on his craft. But, sometimes he needs more than Cyril, and apparently has a tendency to lull young women under his spell, using them as muses until he loses all interest in them and lets them gradually fade away. And, he’s found a new muse in Alma. Reynolds is quickly able to sweep Alma off her feet, showing her a glimpse at the lavish and fulfilling life that he leads. Even though their first date does end with Reynolds taking her measurements while Cyril coldly looks on, the decides to continue seeing him, and quickly moves to his home/workshop/gallery in London. Reynolds begins using Alma as inspiration for new gowns, and as a model for perspective buyers while gradually teaching her some of the trade, allowing her to work with some of the other seamstresses that help him bring his designs to life.
Unfortunately, this isn’t to last. Reynolds and Alma have a very nice time together for a time, but eventually Reynolds starts to bore of her. He spends less and less time with her, and Alma becomes convinced that he’s just going to start ignoring her until she leaves on her own volition, like all the others. But, she won’t accept that. She tries to fix her and Reynolds’ relationship, pushing it to be a more functional and traditional one, and he does not care for that. He lashes out, and Alma realizes that she’s never going to succeed this way. So, she does something extreme. She finds some toxic mushrooms, and poisons his tea, making him extremely sick. She manages to take care of him, and even pushes above Cyril briefly in his esteem. And, this is enough for him to decide to do something a little extreme. He proposes, and the two are quickly wed. For a while this seems to have fixed everything, but things eventually begin to crumble once more. Reynolds once again starts to get bored with Alma, and she becomes frustrated that she still isn’t the center of his world. But, they end up coming up with a twisted compromise. Alma and Reynolds have a frank discussion about the fact that she poisoned him, and intends to occasionally poison him for the rest of their lives whenever their relationship reaches a point that they need to reset. Reynolds agrees to these terms, and eats a poisoned omelette, agreeing that he occasionally needs medically demanded breaks, and appreciates Alma for being the first person to actually find a way to help him.
Phantom Thread is a truly hypnotic film. As usual with films helmed by Paul Thomas Anderson, it’s a gorgeous affair, lovingly shot and expertly bringing you into this dark story. There’s nothing too flashy about Phantom Thread. It’s primarily just scene after scene of people talking in rooms. But it’s handled in such a way that you get absolutely drawn into it, fully submerging yourself into the world that Anderson is building. And it’s all bolstered by a trio of tremendous performances. Daniel Day-Lewis is terrific as the vain and persnickety Reynolds Woodcock, crafting a character who cares about little other than his own comfort and art, not caring what he does to those around him to accomplish this. It’s a hell of a performance to end a career on, if that’s actually how things will shake out. But I really do think that the show is stolen by his two co-stars, Vicky Krieps and Lesley Manville as Alma and Cyril respectively. Manville is so enjoyable as the cold, robotic, and thoroughly unpleasant Cyril, at times becoming a veritable villain in the film. But it’s Krieps as Alma that really blew me away. She begins the film in such a naive, idealistic state, and you get to slowly watch and she’s either warped by her life with the Woodcocks, or reveals her true, warped self.
I was initially confused when I was hearing this film compared to Gothic Horror stories, but that summation ended up becoming quite accurate to me. For the longest time I felt that the film was just going to be watching a man psychologically torture a woman, forcing her to either adapt to his own bizarre worldview or else leave the creative paradise that he lives in. But, to my surprise, the film ended up becoming something much more than that. We watch an incredibly strange and troubling relationship develop, but one that seems to work for the two people involved. They fall into a pattern where they find happiness with occasional poisonings, all to keep them on the same page. Reynolds will now be able to appreciate his work without getting too wrapped up in it due to occasional breaks, and Alma will feel important in Reynolds’ life without having to constantly question her place in the world. This is an obviously toxic and twisted relationship, and an insane way for two people to lead their life. It plays into the strange narrative that a creative person must make their art the most important thing in their life, and everyone around them just serves to make that art possible. It’s a pretty vain and vile notion, but I feel as if this film is condemning it the entire time. I suppose it’s nice that Alma and Reynolds have found a way to make their relationship work, and in a manner that’s not hurting anyone else. Just themselves. But they certainly are not role models. They’re cautionary tales, figures to look at and hold up against yourself as a litmus test for when you’ve gone too far. They’re too broken individuals who have found that they’re broken in complimentary ways, and while I suppose their life will work out fine for themselves, it’s no way to live.
Phantom Thread was written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and released by Focus Features, 2017.
Categories: Reel Talk
So what do you think the “Phantom Thread” actually was?
Well, I had read that the term refers to a phenomenon where people on the garment industry will get so wrapped up in sewing that they’ll kind of robotically sew nothing. Using that definition I think it’s referring to the idea that Reynolds is so wrapped up in his life and his craft that his entire life runs on autopilot. It’s all the phantom Thread, and he doesn’t know how to break the cycle, until Alma and her mushrooms show up.
That’s my best guess though. I’m sure there another way to look at it in a more Alma-centric way, but I haven’t been able to figure that out.
What’re your thoughts?
My feeling is that there are intentionally multiple layers to it, but I have a strong inclination towards his automated adding of secret messages as a link to his mother as hidden from everyone that is then broken by Alma’s literal ripping out of those threads.
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Oh, I like that. This really does feel like a story that could be looked at from a whole litany of different ways. I look forward to seeing it again to see how my thoughts change.