The Pattern and Passion of ‘Phantom Thread’

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Vicky Krieps as Alma and Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, 2017

Imagine a movie that might have opened at Radio City Music Hall in the mid-1950s, a lavishly produced romantic comedy—with songs, perhaps—about a headstrong and slightly naïve young woman who gets involved with a distinguished but very fussy fashion designer (Fred Astaire? Clifton Webb?), and step by step prevails on him to lighten up and rediscover the ordinary pleasures of life while, in the process, they realize a mutual love. Or, alternatively, imagine a post-Hitchcockian thriller with some fiercely witty repartee in which a young woman adrift is taken up by a reclusive, controlling man of wealth and his somewhat sinister sister, finding herself in an atmosphere both alluring and threatening, until the conviction grows that within this hermetic world lurks the possibility of murderous violence. Or, again, a late Ibsen play in which an aging death-haunted artist becomes fixated on a young woman he perceives as a soulmate—and her name is Alma—until the two are locked in a mortal standoff between cosmic forces of love and destruction, and he may end up poisoned by the life-force he sought to devour.

Imagine all three of these, and more, somehow melded into a coherent work and you might have something like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. It is indeed a triumph of stitchery, combining disparate colors and textures into an apparently seamless garment. To watch it for the first time is to be continually teased by contradictory possibilities, waiting for the moment when one of the characters will be revealed as a psycho-killer, or when all will turn to smiles with the realization that love conquers all. Initial reviews revealed a certain puzzlement with its evasion of easy categorizing. Love story? Gothic melodrama? Psychological study? Ghost story? Fashion show? Comedy of manners? One reviewer even described it as a “historical drama”: fair enough, in view of Anderson’s devotion, here as in earlier films, to summoning up the precise surfaces and behaviors of a chosen period—here, the high fashion world of London in the 1950s, seen from the terminally refined precincts of a dressmaker whose clients are royalty, aristocracy, and the shamelessly rich.

The minute perfectionism of Anderson’s historical imagination, which until now has focused exclusively on the United States, seems mysteriously linked to the poetic force of his films. He finds his way to the heart of what concerns him through artifacts and color schemes, the fibers of cloth and the grains of woodwork. In making a film about a clothing designer, he has found an ideal metaphor for his own way of working, and with Daniel Day-Lewis as the designer in question, the gaunt and fastidious Reynolds Woodcock of the House of Woodcock, he has the actor supremely capable of realizing the intricate contradictions of a character who might so easily have become a caricature of a domineering, terribly British fussbudget.

Day-Lewis has said that this will be his last movie role—a misfortune, but certainly a suitable way to go out. In his every movement and line reading, he embodies Reynolds’s single-minded attention to detail and graceful form, along with the turbulence kept in check beneath that veneer, occasionally manifesting itself through short, sharp bursts of petulance. The performance itself is an analogue of the dresses he makes, each gesture sewn by hand. In his usual fashion, Day-Lewis prepared for the role by inhabiting the character; his scarred fingertips bear the marks of the dressmaking skills to which he applied himself.

Reynolds has been announced to us as “a most demanding man” from the start, and the point is made rapidly with a montage of his morning routine—shaving, polishing shoes, tweezing nasal hair, vigorously applying a pair of hairbrushes—each step executed with ritualistic gravity and precision. He is a man whose entire life is lived with, and in the service of, women—he is, in fact, the only male character of consequence in the film—and we are permitted to think that everything he does is calculated to preserve him from simply being swallowed up in an ocean of femininity. His obsessiveness is contained and elegant, and as his staff of seamstresses make their way up the winding stairs of the Georgian mansion that is his domain, he greets them with the politesse of an acknowledged lord.

These seamstresses—white-haired women for the most part, who set about their work with calm concentration—will be in the visual field a good deal of the time, a silent chorus in white smocks grouped around the garments that they handle with the attentiveness of a nurse to a patient. They have nearly no words, but we are made acutely conscious of their hands. The circular movements of wrists and fingers become part of the film’s music, interwoven with Johnny Greenwood’s virtually continuous score, which itself manages to insert passages of Fauré, Debussy, Schubert, and Billy Strayhorn almost imperceptibly, the effect being of a pulse that never intrudes but is a sustaining line through all the sometimes jagged emotional jabs and counterthrusts—precisely a thread joining moment to moment.

The metaphor of couture is hard to avoid in a film so centrally involved with measuring and cutting and sewing, stitching and unstitching. The very visible boldness of the editing, the leaps and ellipses, keep the idea of cutting very much at the forefront. A crucial scene in which a wedding dress must be repaired overnight evokes both an emergency medical operation and the race against time to reshape a film in the editing room. Spatial and temporal transitions are abrupt—we move back and forth in time, and, at least once, from the world of the living to the world of the dead—and we are made very much aware of what has been left out. The world of Reynolds Woodcock is one of carefully guarded views, deliberately excluding much in order to focus on the continual artmaking at its center: a world in which he can exercise near-total control, keeping at bay both outward annoyances and inward unease, while cherishing the memory of the mother who taught him his craft (a lock of whose hair he has sewn into his jacket). This is an instance of the “phantom thread” of the title, his secret ritual of hiding things in the linings of garments.

The film itself can be neatly sewn into that phrase. What is a phantom thread, a connection that doesn’t really exist? Or are we truly in the realm of ghosts and predestined fates? Reynolds’s preternaturally well-ordered existence is backed by a devotional cult of the dead mother, and whose scent he imagines he smells: “It’s comforting to feel that the dead are watching over the living.” Meanwhile, he has a sister, the unmarried Cyril, the sharp-tongued and observant manager who runs the business, handles the clients, and takes charge of dismissing the girlfriends who have outstayed their welcome. It is her pragmatic alertness that permits Reynolds to lose himself, without petty interruptions, in his aesthetic solitariness.

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Lesley Manville as Cyril in Phantom Thread, 2017

If, in the film’s early stages, Cyril evokes Hitchcockian menaces like Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca or Mme. Sebastian in Notorious, she becomes through the alchemy of Lesley Manville’s wonderful performance the film’s pivotal figure; and when Reynolds encounters Alma (Vicky Krieps), the woman who will endanger the self-protection of his armored way of life, it is Cyril’s objective gaze that stabilizes the competing forces of will thus set in play. Beyond its fabrics and furniture and music, Phantom Thread is essentially a chamber drama in which three lives are at stake, and without Cyril—without the tact with which she swallows her own discontents and keeps so much unsaid—its architecture would collapse.

Reynolds, obscurely ill at ease after the dismissal of his latest girlfriend for the unpardonable offense of getting on his nerves at breakfast time, heads for his country home, stopping along the way at a seaside café where Alma is working as a waitress. She stumbles into his view, a momentary loss of balance that signals all that is to follow. He woos her with his appetite, ordering a long list of items for breakfast and expecting her to remember them all; she responds by getting everything right and accepting his invitation for dinner. Food is another thread: in a film centered on romantic passion, breakfast and dinner stand in for sex scenes, and every detail associated with the preparation, serving, and consumption of food has a precise emotional register. After impressing Reynolds with her table service and her appreciation of a well-made sauce, she almost loses him by the unseemly noisy naturalness she brings to the act of eating; she rouses him to fury by defying his preferences and serving him asparagus in butter; and the startling method she contrives to resolve the conflict between them is cooked up in the kitchen.

Alma is a foreigner, from a country never disclosed. Her past is among those elements kept deliberately from view. She is the person who wanders by accident into Reynolds’s carefully composed existence and determines in an instant that she wishes to stay there. For him, she is his ideal of beauty, and apparently also of compliance: the perfect model. As a character, she might seem an empty canvas, an abstraction: muse, outsider, perhaps an innocent, perhaps a woman with unknown secrets. Most certainly, she is a person of iron will—“No one can stand as long as I can”—who will never lose a staring contest. We often see her standing as still, upright, and unadorned as a Hammershoi portrait, in contrast to the satin rustling of elaborate formal dresses.

Incarnated with luminous directness by Vicky Krieps, Alma is the natural human being who finds herself in a most unnatural world, the one who sees everything for the first time and reacts to its strangeness, a strangeness at first fascinating and later repellent. At the film’s midpoint, she finally says it: “I don’t know what I’m doing here.” She’s the only person to use the word “normal”—and what she means by abnormal is not only Reynolds and his elaborate system of taboos and obsessions, but the society within which he operates, the rituals and hierarchies and savagely enforced codes of etiquette. Reynolds is the consummate artificer, bringing into being creations that are like flowers from some other planet; Alma, perhaps, is the child of nature who is at home in the woods, gathering mushrooms; or the necessary intermediary between Reynolds and that vanished mother whose spectral form materializes for one long moment that may be nothing more than a fevered hallucination. Perhaps the whole movie exists to make possible the moment when Alma and the phantom share the same frame, the crossing of two planes that may or may not be linked by a thread.

Phantom Thread, a film about concealment that is also an exercise in concealment, can very satisfyingly be read backwards and forwards, from inside out and outside in. Its particular beauty is to establish an intimate acquaintance with three characters who are lifelike by virtue of our inability to sound their depths. The narrow dimensions and winding stairs of Reynolds’s Georgian mansion reinforce a sense of labyrinthine evasions, but the film really takes place in the faces of the three principal actors. We look at them so closely and so long that we feel the presence of some kind of knowledge, even if that is finally another tantalizing fabric, another veil.


Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread is in theaters.

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