When fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) first meets Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps), the confirmed bachelor is on a brief escape from London into the country.
He has grown tired of his latest muse and, unable to make time in his personal routine to do the dirty work of asking her to go, has left town to let his sister and companion Cyril (Lesley Manville) take care of that sordid business. Alma is a small-town waitress of no particular glamour, yet Woodcock is enamored. He rattles off a long breakfast order, takes her writing pad away before she can put the order in, asks her if she can remember everything. It’s his test for her, and her introduction into Woodcock’s world. He gets the satisfaction of seeing her pass his test, dote on his obsession. She’s no shrinking violet, no damsel in distress: she finds his attentions irresistible, his orbit fulfilling, and a new and exciting role as the muse of a fashionable, mercurial mystery of a man.
It sounds straightforward, like a period romance. Perhaps a movie where she finds out he’s evil and abusive and gets out of the relationship, better off; or, maybe, a movie where he learns she’s some sort of fatal attraction seeking his ruination. Phantom Thread is neither of those. It’s a dark comedy, a romance, a study.
Paul Thomas Anderson has written and directed eight films, and perhaps the only similarity between them is his curiosity, and the comprehensiveness with which he explores any subject to which he puts his mind. As always, his concern is humanistic in the extreme, empathetic to the last frame. In the past he’s pondered family, anxiety, religion, reality. It wouldn’t be unfair to say his films even exhibit a measure of grace. This film passes zero judgment on Woodcock and Alma as their relationship becomes more and more “twisted” by conventional storytelling terms — because most stories aren’t real, because conventions are crafted to normalize and assuage, because Phantom Thread is Anderson’s raw, real depiction of the nature of attraction and love.
The title is the thesis. A dressmaker can sew anything into the lining of a garment. Woodcock, whose mother taught him all he knew, sewed a piece of her hair into the breast of his jacket so that she would always be with him and his work. That’s a literal version of the idea. Phantom Thread is about the threads buried within all of our minds, those bits and pieces of us that inform who we are and how we love.
Woodcock and Alma are our test subjects, a man and a woman whose relationship is the food for our thought. They’re so lovingly, fully rendered that as they discover aspects of themselves through their relationship, so too does the audience come to understand precisely what the film aims to make us think. What makes us attracted to certain kinds of people, what bit of us makes us put up with behavior in our spouses that make our friends shake their heads in dismay? What do we want?
If you Google Phantom Thread, it is listed a crime / drama, which couldn’t be further from the truth. It is as intense as it is intimate. Little of the drama comes from crimes committed but rather the curious nature of Woodcock and Alma’s relationship. It defies expectations at almost every turn, branching away from what could have been another period romance and into a more insightful space. The deliberate nature of the film puts an uncomfortable amount of faith in the viewer’s ability to engage with it on a personal level. It’s a discomfort that only master filmmakers can achieve and get away with. In this case, I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
It’s hard to describe Phantom Thread without delving into detail. I entered the theater without any expectations or understanding of what was in store. However, I want to clarify a few things that the marketing doesn’t make clear: Although Day-Lewis is characteristically dazzling as Woodcock, the movie is a two-hander and Krieps is very much responsible for carrying the movie. Contrary to the advertising, this is in no way a “great artist gets what he wants” movie, and I feel like a lot of the critical analysis I’ve read leans on this being another movie about “the experience of dating an artist,” which misses the point completely. Completely.
Woodcock is the best at what he does, and every element of the 1950s London fashion scene is lovingly rendered by Anderson, his production team, his actors. Yet what makes Woodcock and Alma’s relationship so real and insightful isn’t dependent on any unique glamour provided by their profession. Fashion is the movie’s visual environment, drawing us in as both entertainment and metaphor. What makes these two so fucked up, and thus so normal, is the same kind of basic behavior that defines any relationship you’ve ever experienced.
Many, many movies spout off the platitude that “we can’t help who we love,” sometimes as a way of rationalizing abuse, other times as a quick fix to a tricky plot that doesn’t really give us any reason to believe two characters would fall in love before the climax. That isn’t to say there’s no truth to the platitude, just that there’s a whole lot to unpack there and accepting we really can’t help who we love just opens up even more questions about what love is in the first place.
The best films are ones that help the audience see the world around them in a clearer light. Phantom Thread does just that.