There’s a moment early on in “Phantom Thread” where Reynolds Woodcock — the much-lauded dressmaker and central character of the film — is chastising his partner Johanna. Following this scene, she is never heard from again. Johanna, bemoaning Reynolds’ coldness, simply asks him where he has gone, referring to his emotional distance. Reynolds decides to forgo an answer and simply replies, “I cannot begin my day with a confrontation.” Reynolds, a man of rigid routine, views confrontation as the ultimate evil, tripping him up and disrupting his carefully planned inner world. “Phantom Thread” is, in essence, a film about confrontation, and what happens when such a man’s norms are eroded — the consequences of living a meticulously planned existence.
“Phantom Thread” is the newest film by writer-director auteur Paul Thomas Anderson, the filmmaker behind such classics as 2007’s “There Will Be Blood,” 1997’s “Boogie Nights” and 2003’s “Punch Drunk Love.” “Phantom Thread” is Anderson’s eighth movie and his second (The first being 2007’s “There Will Be Blood”) collaboration with legendary method actor Daniel Day Lewis, whose role as the 1950s British dressmaker has been confirmed to be his last.
Paul Thomas Anderson has always been a director who’s been defined — at least in part — by his influences. This is thanks in no small part to Anderson himself, who has made his own cinematic knowledge well known throughout interviews. It is widely believed that the best directors are the most rabid cinephiles, and Anderson is certainly no exception. But Anderson, however influence-heavy his work may seem, always manages to occupy a stable middle ground between any of his would-be sources of derivation. He’s too focused to be Robert Altman, too much of a humanist to be Stanley Kubrick, not quite glitzy enough to be Martin Scorsese and perhaps too grown-up to be Jonathan Demme. Paul Thomas Anderson’s work is all his own in that it always manages to float just above any conventional film trope or plot. Just when you’re thinking, “Oh, I’ve seen this before,” Anderson quickly veers off in another direction, either emotionally or plot-wise, creating a viewing experience that is always worthy of the increasingly rare title of “unique.”
“Phantom Thread” offers no deviation in quality from Anderson’s earlier work. The film stars Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock, a renowned dressmaker in 1950s London, whose dresses are frequently found on the bodies of England’s elite. Lesley Manville, a mainstay of the British film scene, plays Reynolds’ sister and business partner, Cyril. Cyril is a domineering figure, always leering close behind in Reynolds’ life, where she acts as a watchdog over all his relationships, both personal and business related. Luxembourgian actress Vicky Krieps amazes as Alma, the strong-willed woman who finds her way into Reynolds’ strange world and inner orbit. To call Alma simply a “muse” or “love interest” is to do an immense disservice to the role she serves in the film; the story is as much hers as it is Reynolds, and Alma’s often futile pursuit of vulnerability and emotional reciprocation from him purveys the entire two hours of the drama.
Reynolds is a complicated and frustrating man. He is shrill, a perfectionist and not exactly what one would call a “romantic.” Reynolds suffers from a familiar problem of such obsessive personalities: He views personal relationships, leisure and love — what we would call “life” — as a thing to organize around his work, as opposed to the other way around. This is hardly unexplored territory in art, but the source of Reynolds’ disruption makes for a fascinating study in human connection. Reynolds Woodcock shares many traits with another Anderson character, Adam Sandler’s Barry Egan, the introverted bathroom supply salesman in “Punch Drunk Love.” But while Barry was haunted by crushing feelings of his perceived inadequacy, Reynolds is merely too good at what he does for his own well-being. Reynolds’ incredible talent proves to be his main trouble as a person.
Reynolds meets Alma, who works as a waitress, in a countryside restaurant while spending the weekend at his cabin. Alma immediately shows her wit and charm, as she matches Reynolds’ impossibly complicated brunch order — which he insists she deliver by memory, taking away her notepad — by delivering a note back to him with the meal, which reads, “for the hungry boy.” Reynolds has met his match. From then on, the two develop a bizarre and ambiguous relationship, marked by Reynolds’ numerous pathologies and peculiarities. For instance, after Reynolds and Alma’s first date, there is no operatic love scene or emotional exchange. Rather, Reynolds’ takes Alma upstairs and makes her model a dress, with his sister Cyril seemingly appearing out of nowhere to join in and write down her measurements. This is who Reynolds is: A dinner date is nice, but now it’s time to work, and anybody will do. At one point, Reynolds remarks to Alma that “You can sew almost anything into a coat,” when referring to a memory of his mother he stitched into one of his garments. Reynolds literally keeps his whole life within his work. He is dominated and consumed by his craft, from his restless perfectionism that plays out in frantic last-minute changes he makes to dresses before fashion showings, or in the memories of his mother, which he recalls to Alma through an anecdote about making her second wedding dress. When two young women approach Reynolds while he’s out at dinner, they wish not for a relationship, but to be buried in one of his dresses; everyone in Reynolds’ life views him in the context of his profession, but Alma enters the picture viewing him as a man, a man to be understood and decoded.
From here on out, the movie is largely defined by Alma’s attempts to slow down Reynolds routine, a routine his sister believes is “best not shaken.” This proves itself to be true time and time again throughout the film; her attempts, to Reynolds, are “unsettling,” “annoyances” and “confrontations.” When Alma attempts to surprise Reynolds with a one-on-one dinner, Reynolds concludes, “This has been an ambush, and to what purpose?” Reynolds is a man so drowned in the processes of his everyday life that any derailment — no matter how minor — is seen as an insult to him, making for a chronically self-alienating existence. Alma doesn’t back down easily, however. She has a quick retort for every snide comment at the hands of either Reynolds or Cyril, who lingers in the background of their relationship with a near-constant presence. When Reynolds suggests that Alma has poor taste after a mediocre review of one of her dresses, she replies, “Perhaps I like my own taste.” Alma fires back at Reynolds in places where you could imagine his other muses shrinking and sinking into silence.
Reynolds is someone whose silences are meant to mean just as much as his speech. This is shown when he is inspecting a dress made by his army of seamstresses, or the nervous anticipation he goes through when delivering a dress to a member of London’s high society. He can usually be found at the breakfast table in his vast estate, sketching dress designs in his notebook and sneering at anyone who dares butter their toast too loud. Reynolds saves his most emotional moments for the aftermath of a fashion showing that doesn’t go as planned, or a wedding he didn’t wish to attend or lend his talents to. Reynolds can never be bothered to focus on anything other than his work for too long, and human connection, while clearly desired by him, is never worth the bother. Despite all this, Alma endures and endears herself to Reynolds, slowly replacing the icy Cyril as his main companion, much to the chagrin of the judgemental sister. Alma becomes at once a model, a seamstress and companion to Reynolds, who can never quite figure out just what the definition of their relationship is. Reynolds doesn’t wish to find out, and it’s up to Alma to decide for him.
Alma struggles to crack the code of Reynolds Woodcock, and, although she shares a breakfast table with him, and is unquestionably his closest companion save for his sister, always seems to find her goal of breaking Reynolds’ thick detachment just out of reach. In fact, the first time they share an (implied) intimate moment comes after Alma steals back a wedding dress from a woman Reynolds sees as “not deserving of the House of Woodcock.” The dynamic that Reynolds and Alma share seems reminiscent of a previous Anderson film, 2012’s “The Master,” where a listless and unstable sailor played by Joaquin Phoenix strikes up a friendship with a charismatic cult leader played by Philip Seymour Hoffman; you never quite know what keeps drawing them toward each other. This is hardly a knock on the character development of the movie, however; Anderson thrives when he’s exploring the ambiguity of human relationships, and “Phantom Thread” is no exception.
Eventually, Alma figures out how to tame Reynolds. “Sometimes it’s good for him to slow down his steps a little” she remarks, and she achieves it — albeit by unconventional means. Alma’s method proves successful, and although their relationship is not perfect from there on out, it provides Alma with a blueprint on how to domesticate such a difficult person. Alma devises a way to break Reynolds by tearing him down and making him strong again, so to speak; she leaves him with no choice but to finally submit to a state of temporary helplessness. (The methods by which she does this will not be disclosed, in the interest of remaining spoiler free) By doing this, Alma creates the vulnerability and tenderness she desires in Reynolds, and he seems to cop to it, if not accept it, by the end of the film. Reynolds is the ostensible main character of the movie, but Alma is the core. She breaks every tired stereotype of the “love interest” and shifts the movie to her point of view almost seamlessly, claiming power in the relationship one breakfast at a time.
Near the end of the film, Alma and Reynolds are seen sharing one of her much sought after tender moments on a sofa. Alma, ruminating on her vision of an ideal future with Reynolds, proclaims near the end of her speech, “I am older and I see things differently, and I finally understand you.” This, as the preceding two hours of the film show, is wishful thinking, but then again, who knows? Human relationships are often minefields of unspoken anxieties, disappointment and regret, but they also offer hope. We can never understand each other, or mold each other into our respective ideal versions, but we still try. “Phantom Thread” deals with these unsolvable problems, and people’s efforts to answer them, in an incredibly compelling way.
The movie is stunning to look at, with a camera that — in true Paul Thomas Anderson fashion — never remains still for too long, and a Renaissance painting-like framing that you can almost walk into. Such a visually compelling work makes for a viewing experience that makes two hours go by instantly. One hardly needs to be an expert on mid-20th century high fashion (I’m certainly not) to be completely engrossed by this neo-gothic, wonderfully bizarre love story. The film doesn’t feel supernatural, per se, but seems to occupy a slightly different reality than our own. This plays out, partly, through ghostly visits and through the vaguely defined realities of all the relationships shown throughout the drama. “Phantom Thread” is both simple and impossible to describe, tirelessly detailed yet entirely digestible to a mass audience. It felt like I was watching a magic trick being pulled off.
Paul Thomas Anderson, Daniel-Day Lewis, Vicky Krieps and Lesley Manville have pulled off something truly novel with this movie, an instant classic that is at once retro and totally new feeling. “Phantom Thread” is a fascinating tale of obsession, the dangers of routine and the hopelessness of our inability to ever truly understand each other.