Phantom Thread dressing

At any given moment within Phantom Thread, the newest film from writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, it’s amazing to consider how far the filmmaker has come in the past 20 years. Earlier this fall, I wrote about Anderson’s masterful, sprawling tragicomic epic Boogie Nights upon its 20th anniversary and how so many of his films focus on the creation of a makeshift family when biological family members simply won’t do. However, while that theme recurs in many of Anderson’s films, it’s utterly remarkable to consider how much he’s pushed himself upon the release of his eighth feature. Phantom Thread is perhaps his most compelling, maddening, entrancing story to date.

The pattern that Anderson’s earlier films, the ones from the late 1990s, seemed to fit within began to evaporate with the release of Punch-Drunk Love in 2002. Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia are all talkier films, the latter two owing visible debts to Anderson’s inspirations, directors like Martin Scorsese and the late Robert Altman. Punch-Drunk Love does have a few aspects that seem to tie it to Anderson’s previous films: a Jon Brion score, a present-day California setting, the appearance of Philip Seymour Hoffman (a PTA regular), and a tie to Altman’s filmography (in the use of a song from Popeye). But Punch-Drunk Love is the start of two notable elements that have recurred in a few other PTA films, including Phantom Thread: implacably mysterious lead characters, and the battles of wills that occur between them and others.

Morning Watch - Phantom Thread

The Mysterious Reynolds Woodcock

Barry Egan, Daniel Plainview, Freddie Quell, Lancaster Dodd, and now the two leads of Phantom Thread all stand out in Anderson’s filmography as some of his most remarkable, enigmatic protagonists. Each exists in a different time and place; Reynolds and Alma are the first to live and work within a different country. Yet they all fit as fascinating, imperceptible dark heroes of a sort. The premise of Phantom Thread is as light on detail as possible: set in the 1950s in London, the film focuses on a fastidious clothier named Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he embarks upon a new romance with Alma, a young waitress (Vicky Krieps) he meets one day at a countryside hotel. The peaks and valleys of their relationship make up the rest of the opaque story.

Much has been made in advance that Phantom Thread is the second and supposedly final collaboration between Anderson and star Daniel Day-Lewis, who recently announced his retirement from acting. If he sticks to that announcement, Phantom Thread is a very high note on which to leave, although Reynolds Woodcock is a much different, internal, more oblique character than There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview. Plainview, the antihero of what is still Anderson’s greatest film, doesn’t like to talk much about his past, but the glimpses we see as well as his interactions in the small town of Little Boston, California suggest enough for us to know of the oilman’s dark past and how it hardened his soul into a fiercely competitive spirit.

We’re given fewer clues as to how Reynolds’ and Alma’s minds work for a while; in a lot of ways, they only reveal themselves in the final 10 minutes (about which more soon). In the early section, Phantom Thread almost seems as if it will be the grim, destructive portrayal of the artist and his muse that Darren Aronofsky wanted mother! to be. Reynolds is first seen having breakfast with his devoted sister Cyril (the wonderful Lesley Manville) and Joanna (Camille Rutherford), the latter in a state of perpetual frustration. We know little of Joanna, who leaves Reynolds’ house soon after, but once Alma takes her place, it becomes clearer that Joanna had previously served in the same position: Reynolds’ lover, muse, aide, and sparring partner.

The relationship between Reynolds and Alma is romantic, but also an extension of the more perverse and intense quality of the coupling on display in Punch-Drunk Love. Adam Sandler’s lovelorn Barry Egan does fall hard for Emily Watson’s Lena Leonard, but Barry is an odd, introverted character who only seems to come alive when Lena responds in kind to his awkwardness. “I’m looking at your face and I just want to smash it,” he says to her. “I just want to fuckin’ smash your face in with a sledgehammer.” And she responds, “I want to chew your face and I want to scoop out your eyes.” They deserve each other in their baffling, masochistic idiosyncrasies.

So too is the case for Reynolds and Alma, though at first, Alma finds the older man to be off-putting, prickly and childishly nasty, even as she is attracted to him. When Reynolds goes to decompress at the countryside hotel after Joanna leaves, he’s clearly enchanted by the mysterious Alma, but she fails to notice the fact that his precise needs (to a point of possible OCD) must be met or else he will be unable to perform his work at all hours of the day. They become a couple soon enough, but only in some respects; Alma goes with Reynolds to his favorite London haunt, but they’re always accompanied by Cyril, and Alma always ends up feeling like the third wheel instead. Reynolds barely expresses visible sexual interest in Alma, at least until she steels her reserve and barges into the hotel room of a drunken American socialite (Harriet Sansom Harris) to remove the Woodcock dress she’s wearing after collapsing into a stupor. Only then does Reynolds embrace her passionately in a fit of pique.

Phantom Thread Contest

A Frosty Relationship

Even amidst the push and pull, Alma wants to surprise Reynolds with a romantic dinner, perhaps as a way to rekindle the relationship that began when he ordered a massive breakfast at the country hotel. Cyril firmly but kindly warns against it, saying that her brother hates surprises yet Alma persists; when Reynolds arrives, he is indeed cold and brusque. It’s here that the relationship grows icier and more co-dependent. Reynolds snaps at Alma, first about the manner in which she’s prepared his asparagus (with butter, not oil, because again, he’s very precise), then childishly suggesting that she’s an agent dispatched to destroy his entire life. (This scene, as well as a few others, features the sharp and very odd humor that marks many of PTA’s best films. Day-Lewis may not seem like a particularly funny actor, but his repeated line, “Show me your gun” is weirdly very funny, adding a layer of bristling tension to the argument.) In another movie, with other people, maybe Alma would go back to the countryside and leave Reynolds and Cyril to their work. Instead, Alma sticks around and chooses to spring on her lover another surprise.

Phantom Thread does not reveal itself fully at first, barely even hinting at the mystery of its framing device: Alma and an unseen person sitting by a fire together, she talking to the other about Reynolds. At one point, we briefly see the person (a man around her age), but then we soon see him in a different context. After the argument between Reynolds and Alma, she finds some mushrooms in the nearby woods to use in her cooking, deliberately choosing those with mildly poisonous properties. In fact, Alma only puts a few ground-up pieces of mushroom in Reynolds’ tea, but it’s enough to cause him to pass out, suffer gastrointestinal distress, and hallucinate about his long-dead mother. For the first time in the film, Reynolds is helpless, relying on Alma in every way, even when a young doctor (the man with whom Alma is speaking in the framing device) comes by to check up on the older patient.

It’s here that Phantom Thread most clearly deviates from Anderson’s other films. Many of those films are obsessed with families, specifically with fathers and sons. Phantom Thread, on the other hand, is very much about mothers and sons, in more ways than one. Aside from that hallucination, we don’t see Reynolds’ and Cyril’s mother though her impact is keenly felt. When Reynolds is on the mend, Alma takes over to bring him back to full health, echoing his pushy behavior (when the ill man tells his doctor to “fuck off,” Alma repeats, “I’m afraid that you must fuck off”). Here, she takes even Cyril’s place, the sister who is rarely away from her brother’s side even during romantic entanglements. Here, Alma becomes a surrogate mother to Reynolds, who responds by freely telling Alma for the first time that he loves her and then proposing marriage.

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About the Author

Josh Spiegel is a Phoenix-based critic & writer. He's one of the hosts of Mousterpiece Cinema, a podcast about Disney films. He's also written a book of criticism on Pixar, titled Yesterday is Forever: Nostalgia and Pixar Animation Studios.