Phantom Thread (2017)
Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Produced by Paul Thomas Anderson, Megan Ellison, JoAnne Sellar, Daniel Lupi
Cinematography by Paul Thomas Anderson (uncredited)
Costume design by Mark Bridges
Music by Jonny Greenwood
Edited by Dylan Tichenor
Focus Features, Universal Pictures
AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center (2:10)
“Whatever you do, do it carefully.”
The same admonishment could’ve been used by Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) to one of his assistant dressmakers, or by his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) to one of her underlings, or by anyone in a position of authority over someone beneath that authority. I’m reminded of John 13:27 when Jesus spoke to Judas, “What you are going to do, do quickly,” knowing that Judas was going to betray him. It’s not quite the same as what Alma (Vicky Krieps) tells Reynolds early in the film, but the thought flashed through my mind while watching Phantom Thread: Who really holds the position of authority in this relationship?
If you’ve never seen a Paul Thomas Anderson film, you may not know what to expect from Phantom Thread, at least based on what you see in the trailers. You may think it’s about the fashion industry, which it is. You may think it’s about conflict, which it is. You may think it’s a love story, which it is. But like the exquisite dresses featured in the film, the depth and riches of Phantom Thread slowly begin to emerge as the fabric and material are handled, its textures examined from various angles and points of light until you find yourself enveloped inside them. Phantom Thread is a rich, multi-layered world that challenges viewers not only to find its seams, but also to luxuriate in the fascinating and sometimes dangerous elements of the human condition.
Put simply, Reynolds Woodcock is a master dressmaker living and working in London in the late 1950s, a man who takes a much-needed holiday in the countryside where he encounters a restaurant waitress named Alma. He’s smitten by her and takes her to be his lover and muse. Is there more to the plot? Perhaps, but what makes Phantom Thread such a fascinating journey is the exploration, certainly of character, but also of power. Reynolds shows who he is to Alma from their first encounter as he orders an enormous amount of food from the restaurant menu, takes the order she has written, and informs her that he’s keeping the list to test her memory, for all practical purposes auditioning her.
But there’s more. Is Reynolds attracted to her for no other reason than that she’s the perfect size, has the perfect measurements, is the perfect muse? Is she only utilitarian? Does she have anything beyond these things to contribute to his life and work? Is, in fact, Reynolds’s life anything at all beyond his work? If Alma is to be anything more than a muse, it seems she will have to challenge Reynolds and she does so in several moments throughout the film, one of which is referenced in my opening quote. Anderson’s films have almost always contained some manner of manipulation by one character over another, most memorably in The Master (2012), but you could name countless others. (I have seen all eight of his major films and can think of Punch-Drunk Love  as perhaps the only film that may not fit this mold. But it’s been at least a dozen years since I’ve seen it.) Like The Master, Phantom Thread may be seen as a power struggle between two headstrong people, one who has always been so and another who is just possibly coming into her own very, very quickly.
If that’s the case with Alma, she’s a quick study. In an attempt to keep things mostly spoiler-free, there’s a scene early on in which Cyril goes to bring tea to Reynolds, effectively sidestepping Alma and closing the door on her, clearly conveying the message that Alma’s still an outsider. Later in the film, an important event occurs and Alma is able to reverse the situation. Yet when she challenges Reynolds, he challenges back. At one point (a scene contained in some of the trailers for the film), Alma accuses Reynolds of “playing a game” with her. Reynolds fires back quickly, “A game? What is the nature of my game?” (This line immediately made me think of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” – another story for another time.) The “game” theme is repeated later in the film as Reynolds and Alma play backgammon, a game Alma is woefully unprepared to play. But that’s not the only game being played here and in time she learns how to play a far more serious one.
On a recent (and may I say, excellent) episode of the Filmspotting podcast (#664, to be exact), Adam Kempenaar and Josh Larsen comment that Phantom Thread is not a typical narrative that moves in a Point A to Point B to Point C manner. It’s largely a character study (or character studies) that will no doubt yield greater rewards the more times the film is seen. As mentioned earlier, the work contains so many layers, so much intricacy and nuance that it’s impossible to catch everything from a single viewing.
Anderson is a masterful director, laying out so many elements that seem so simple and natural, it’s easy to miss many of the film’s treasures. The obvious aspects are immediately apparent: a great story and great actors. Anderson himself recently appeared on a Nerdist podcast episode and was asked what advice he would give to new directors. “Hire Daniel Day-Lewis,” he said jokingly (since Day-Lewis has announced his apparent retirement after the completion of Phantom Thread), clarifying this to mean to hire the best actors you can. Then find the best writing you can. Of course Anderson has done this throughout his entire career, but it’s easier said than done. Yet Anderson also places in his films brilliant sets, exquisite detail, immaculate costumes, and superb musical choices in the score by Jonny Greenwood. (May I say that Greenwood’s score for this film is absolutely stunning in every way. I could write an entire post about the score, but I doubt I could come close to doing it justice – and I have three music degrees!)
Anderson’s brilliance emerges as he combines each of these elements, making decisions that – once you begin to examine them, then look at the decisions most other directors make – leave you shaking your head in wonder. Phantom Thread contains moments of everyday actions which become fluid works of art in themselves, taking something so ordinary, such as people passing one another on a stairway or entering a room, that take your breath away. It’s a combination of set design, lighting, pacing, staging, camera work, music, all with a movement so natural you wonder how they do it. You get the feeling that you’re eavesdropping on a group of professional dressmakers in their workplace who have been working for hours before you got there and will have many hours of work ahead of them after you depart. It is mise-en-scène at its highest level.
(MILD SPOILERS) It is only after the film has ended – perhaps days after – that you may begin to ask yourself what lingers in your mind as a result of the film. My wife – who is not a fan of movies (but accompanied me to this one for my birthday) – remarked, “It’s a film about two despicable people.” I didn’t argue about the validity of her statement, but rather brought up the fact that Alma does what she does to make the relationship work. Near the end of the film, does Reynolds actually see Alma preparing his food? It’s from a distance, but I think he does. Reynolds hasn’t achieved a high level of notoriety in his field by not being observant. I think he knows exactly what’s going on and understands that he is now part of a cycle that may be repeated endlessly in order to make this relationship “workable” (for lack of a better term) in the long run. Perhaps I’m wrong. But on the other hand, perhaps I’m right and these final moments speak to not only the power plays and machinations that can make up relationships, but also the intentions behind them, which may be just as frightening to the one orchestrating them as they are to the one on the receiving end. Perhaps that’s the nature of their game. Is that strangely comforting or absolutely terrifying? It is often said that we each make our own hell. It can be a meticulously constructed one with elaborate blueprints and designs, it can even be agreed upon by both parties, but it’s still a hell, however precariously balanced it is. Sometimes, in order for the precarious balance to stand, you must offer the other person a bit of advice:
“Whatever you do, do it carefully.”
Photos: Paste, Flickering Myth, Brief Take