Note: This is the first of two reviews of Phantom Thread. Watch for Raymond De Luca’s take later this week.
Each viewing paints old interactions in new colors, and the film thrives on these in-betweens, in the slight changes of human fancy. Reynolds is in love with Alma, no doubt, but to what end? What does he want from it? And how can he love her? And for how long? Alma loves Reynolds, she loves his work more than the women who pay for it, but is this crooked, anxious love at the hands of an unknowable man the truest love she can find? Each character sets out, orbiting each other, ebbing from and toward trouble.
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Paul Thomas Anderson has made eight movies in twenty-two years. His style is no longer what it once was. He’s a filmmaker more and more concerned with minor gestures, small expressions, quietness. His grand maximalist entertainment now sits in silence, alone. Phantom Thread is his most spare and elegant film yet. It’s a work of interiors, both in setting and emotion, with a story operating mostly through pregnant pauses. Characters become distant and close to each other through their silences. Phantom Thread operates like a movie based on a novel, all connective tissue stripped away, leaving voids. Except it’s not based on a novel; it was designed with extra space in mind. This take on a classic women’s picture story – a gentleman, his confidant, and the lower-class woman left reeling – lets the audience guess at the intentions and backgrounds of its characters, hinting more than telling. The movie is confessional by space and gesture, not by speech and action.
The picture opens with Alma, a woman with no special introduction, no given background, no friends or family to speak of. We must begin to construct her from scraps, and so we do: by her accent, we can assume Alma is an immigrant to England. Alma is portrayed by Vicky Krieps, a Luxembourg native who keeps her accent for the film, so we can assume that Alma is Luxembourgish as well. Phantom Thread takes place five or so years after Allied forces liberated the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg from the Nazis. While in exile, the government of Luxembourg set up a vicarious base in London, and many Luxembourgish people followed suit. This is not to say England was always a willing host. England was not – and is not – a visionary melting pot society. Even the Director-General of the BBC, Lord John Charles Walsham Reith, had pro-fascist tendencies in the 1930s, writing in his diary, “The Nazis will clean things up and put Germany on the way to being a real power in Europe again.”1 Racism rears its head in Phantom Thread: an upper-class English party host whispers once Alma has left the room: “I don’t mean to be racist but. . . .”
Alma’s displacement is further hinted at in a pointed moment of silence. Reporters field questions during a wedding announcement between Dominican diplomat Rubio Gurrerro and Woodcock patron Barbara Rose. A Daily Mail reporter speaks up. (It should be noted that The Daily Mail was also a supporter of Nazi Germany: The Daily Mail’s founder, Lord Harold Harmsworth, wrote, “The minor misdeeds of individual Nazis would be submerged by the immense benefits the new regime is already bestowing upon Germany.”2 This reporter pointedly asks about the Dominican Republic’s selling of passports to Jewish refugees during World War II. The camera lands not on the diplomat but on Alma, her face still with recognition. During the Holocaust, Luxembourg was a nation declared Judenrein – cleansed of Jews.
Within the first act, Alma becomes whole to the observant. Reynolds sees Alma for the first time as a waitress at a hotel restaurant. She trips and is momentarily embarrassed but recovers almost immediately, sharing in Reynolds’ smiles. When Reynolds propositions her, she has already prepared a note for him, beating him at his own game. On their date, Alma appears emotional at the mention of her mother. (We can assume her parents were not as lucky as she.) As Reynolds speeds down a country road in his car, Alma has nothing but delight written on her face. Reynolds stares at her and she stares back: “If you want to have a staring contest with me, you will lose.” Later, when Reynolds storms off, Alma makes no apologies: “He’s too fussy.” Without Phantom Thread telling us anything explicit, we, the audience, see a scrappy, independent, searching Jewish refugee from Luxembourg. These characters interact, her eyes move, her mouth turns upwards and downwards, in turn smitten and off-put. Alma is Alma.
Reynolds Woodcock is our second protagonist, a fashion designer and, at first glance, bon vivant. Much has been made of his obsessive nature, biting tongue, and the “male genius” mold from which he was supposedly formed. But Reynolds is as much an interloper as Alma. On their first date, Reynolds and Alma size up one another, making sure they are built to the other’s liking. Then, when found suitable, Reynolds lets his defenses down and Alma in: he is a “confirmed bachelor.” In fact, he’s “incurable” – a line delivered with a venom that hints at his attempts to cure. (A homosexual man, anonymously interviewed on England’s Independent Television in 1957: “If there was a guaranteed cure – a hope – that I could become an ordinary normal person I would certainly welcome it. I think all homosexuals would like to be cured.”3). While the Buggery Act of 1533 had been repealed a century before Phantom Thread, homosexual acts were illegal and punishable in England until the 1960s. According to the Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution, men imprisoned for homosexual acts in 1954 numbered 1,065.4
In two lines, under the breath and not dwelled upon, Reynolds opens up his life. Alma has had years to become comfortable as a stranger in a strange land, while Reynolds has spent decades as an outsider, fabricating a manageable life. How many of his defenses were put in place to right himself, to make himself less of an outsider or more of an outsider on his own terms? (We are being generous – his flaws could have been elemental regardless.) Even as a successful designer, with wealth, brilliance born of the mind, and a line of courtesans feeling courageous in his clothes, Reynolds is stricken with otherness. He deprives himself of the company of others unless under his guidelines. His courtesans must come to him. He goes to the same restaurant, to the same table in the back – the one framed by an oxidized, worn mirror. Even a costume ball seems like an unwelcome event to the designer. He can only take his solace in a house built to his specifications, with everything he fancies.
Reynolds aside, Phantom Thread is almost devoid of men, as though Reynolds does not want their company, to be teased as such. A young male doctor is scorned, a woman’s son wheels out on his heels at the sight of Reynolds, a man sitting with Reynolds at his usual table gets no lines of dialogue. When a male gas station attendant is allowed speech, Reynolds delivers a clipped piece of rote conversation about the weather. Reynolds is propped up on the backs of the women around him. He cannot function without these women. The House of Woodcock is staffed entirely by women. Reynolds life is modistes sewing, women cooking his breakfast, female clients, Alma, and his sister Cyril.
Cyril, an astute and withering figure, takes care of the House of Woodcock. It is, in a way, more her house than Reynolds’. She greets his clientele at the door with a well-practiced smile, directs the manufacture of clothing, manages the finances from her office, controls and protects her brother’s personal and public life. She goes to events to make sure the House of Woodcock is well represented while Reynolds goes to the countryside. She reads the newspaper at breakfast while Reynolds mopes. In what is one of the only illuminating moments of backstory, Cyril is said to have aided Reynolds in the sewing of their mother’s wedding dress. She seems cold, perhaps, but she’s bearing the burden of a renowned fashion house in an era when her ambition would be outsized elsewhere. Besides the occasional attempt at parity, after World War II, England faced a renewed interest in the traditional nuclear family. In 1951, 84.8% of women between forty-five and forty-nine were married.5 Cyril, it is noted, has never taken a husband. Cyril seems uninterested in companionship, except for that of her brother – and even then, only on her own terms. When Reynolds raises his voice, Cyril deadheads his performance: “I don’t like to hear it because it hurts my ears.”
With all this in the back of our mind, the interpersonal lives of these characters take on new texture as Phantom Thread navigates the foggy layers of performative interaction and earnest emotion. But the film is not purposefully, willfully, winkingly opaque, it’s just unconcerned. The characters have nothing to prove to the audience – they are often unwilling to be anything for anyone. The film is equally about true love and human reliance on unreliable things. Its characters are both giving and desiresome of total control – and it only makes sense that each person wants to control so much when so much is outside their control. Each viewing paints old interactions in new colors, and the film thrives on these in-betweens, in the slight changes of human fancy. Reynolds is in love with Alma, no doubt, but to what end? What does he want from it? And how can he love her? And for how long? Alma loves Reynolds, she loves his work more than the women who pay for it, but is this crooked, anxious love at the hands of an unknowable man the truest love she can find? Each character sets out, orbiting each other, ebbing from and toward trouble.
It’s a small world they inhabit, with flesh of heart and hearts of steel. Occasionally, a kind of cruelty builds up, but the reason for its existence remains curious. Perhaps Cyril sees Reynolds using up the women around him, something she is complicit in. Maybe Reynolds understands his shortcomings, that he cannot function without his cadre of helpers, that he is, more often than not, impotent, that Alma is trying to change him into something he is not. Alma seems unwilling to wilt under Reynolds, unsure of her place in his space. When Alma sends away Reynolds’ help and cooks a surprise dinner for two, each frame is rich in jealousy and cruelty. Time slows. Alma: “I don’t know what I am doing here.” Reynolds: “Do you have a gun? Are you here to kill me?” Even in their searching and angry dialogue, they don’t really say anything meaningful; their true feelings and motives kept secret. In this war of words, Alma is at a disadvantage, searching for the right words in her second language while Reynolds eats away at her pauses. What is clear: Alma wants something Reynolds can’t give willingly, and Reynolds wants Alma on his own terms. Desperate, Alma targets his comfortable life, his padding from the outside world. Reynolds: “Fuck off.”
Not everything in Phantom Thread is unknowable. When Alma and Reynolds smile at one another, it’s pure. On their first date, mixing business with pleasure, Reynolds fits Alma for a dress. She is captivated, even if momentarily caught off-guard by Cyril’s walk-on. When effusive praise is thrown at Reynolds by two young women, Alma tilts her head, beside herself, radiating. It’s the look of someone flush with pride in a lover’s accomplishments, happy to share in a life that has made others so happy. Reynolds seems at first confused by her reaction, but the moment is Phantom Thread at its most sexual. These moments of pure affection, love in earnest, are the ones that shine in relief against the movie’s occasional claustrophobic feel. Reynolds’ wide, knowing smile at Alma when they first meet, Alma’s flush face, their playful game of watching one another watch one another during a fashion show, Reynolds’ resting head in Alma’s lap. When Alma’s opinion is mocked, she begins a game: “Maybe I like my own taste (…) Perhaps I’m looking for trouble.” Reynolds momentarily flares … they stare at one another … they grin. Reynolds and Alma know their limits and push them like lovers do. One of the sweetest moments is also one of its most perverse: a kiss shared, music swelling, after Alma removes a Woodcock original off the body of a sleeping woman on her wedding night. Reynolds’ work is the product of their shared home, like velvet and silk children, and they are both protective of what is birthed there.
This leads to the film’s hard reset: to calm Reynolds down, to have him to herself, Alma decides to poison his tea. It’s a solution befitting the curved otherness of the film: Alma wants Reynolds subservient, willing to accept her love and care unconditionally. What better way than to incapacitate him? Reynolds isn’t holding back his affection on purpose, he just can’t quite remove himself from his thoughts. In this way, the poisoning benefits him as much as Alma: he longs to be without worry. This is how Phantom Thread cures Reynolds – not of his homosexuality, but of the constraints of modern life. When one is ill, one’s mind hangs on the present, overwhelmed. Everything else can ebb away: his clients, his dresses, his rigid life, and its worries, they are all forgotten and only the present exists. The poisoning gives them what they each desire, it makes them a healthier couple. Phantom Thread takes a back route to get there, but the destination is the same as a more traditional romance: compromise and acceptance in the face of love. How long can this last? Won’t this cause harm in the long run? What will others think? The movie is unconcerned in answering these questions and instead ends pure and happy, with little denouement. Love can be toxic, it can weigh on one person differently than another, but at the highest highs, it’s all that matters. Theirs is a misshapen love, but it is love all the same.
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All images are screenshots from the film.
- Brown, Allan. 50 People Who Screwed Up Scotland. Constable, 2015. [↩]
- Anderson, David C. Three False Convictions, Many Lessons: The Psychopathology of Unjust Prosecutions. Waterside Press, 2016, pp. 107. [↩]
- Kynaston, David. Modernity Britain: Opening the Box, 1957-1959. Bloomsbury, 2013, p. 70. [↩]
- Br Med J. 1957 Sep 14; 2(5045), pp. 639–640. [↩]
- Halsey, Albert Henry. Trends in British Society Since 1900: A Guide to the Changing Social Structure of Britain. Macmillan, 1988. [↩]