Phantom Thread (2017)

Director/Screenwriter/Cinematographer (uncredited): Paul Thomas Anderson

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Leo Tolstoy’s novel, Anna Karenina, famously starts, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Tolstoy’s criteria for family harmony were idiosyncratic to the author himself, but a takeaway for readers and writers everywhere seems to be that only dysfunction is interesting. Well, of course, it’s not, and for all its quirks, Phantom Thread is a prime example of how intriguing and particular familial happiness can be.

The family in question comprises couture fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his sister and business manager, Cyril (Lesley Manville). The middle-aged, unmarried Woodcock siblings live at the top of a vertical warren of a house in London that also contains their atelier and showroom. Cyril manages the seamstresses who climb the stairs each day to help create the House of Woodcock collections; occasionally, Reynolds joins these white-smocked women as they pin, cut, and sew his designs into being.

Reynolds has just helped a downhearted client, Countess Henrietta Harding (Gina McKee), regain her confidence to go out in society by fashioning a regal ensemble for her. His mission accomplished, he experiences a depression-inducing adrenaline crash. He takes Cyril’s advice to go to their country house ahead of her to recharge, and races his sportster through the winding country roads with abandon.

In the morning, Reynolds takes breakfast at a local restaurant, where a fresh-faced waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps), attracts his attention when she stumbles endearingly near the kitchen. She moves to his table, an open smile on her face, and takes his very large order. (“I’m hungry” is his signature line when he feels creative.) He has her hand over her ticket pad to see if she got everything down, asks if she will remember the order, and upon getting an affirmative answer, confiscates the order. When he has finished his breakfast, he asks her to dinner. After a long pause, she answers, “Yes.” Thus, the master-muse relationship commences.

We have already seen Reynolds tire of his previous muse, Johanna (Camilla Rutherford), leaving the details of her dismissal from the Woodcocks’ lives and home to Cyril. We see the instruments of his seduction—his good looks, his offer to make a gown for Alma, his movement along her body as he takes her measurements, his declaration that he has been searching for her for a long time as they take a romantic cliffside walk right out of Wuthering Heights—as well as the way Cyril abets his creative choice of Alma by assuring the awkward, flat-chested young woman that she has the perfect body for Reynolds. Alma also receives Reynolds’ obligatory pronouncement that he is a confirmed bachelor, thus preparing her for the road Johanna and other women like her have traveled. Alma, however, has her own plans, and it is the interplay between her and the Woodcocks that forms the bulk of the film.

Paul Thomas Anderson has constructed a mysterious romantic comedy through the very nature of its characters and some cleverly constructed storytelling. Reynolds Woodcock is almost a caricature of a fashion designer—incredibly fussy, a mama’s boy still fixated on his dead mother, a creative genius indulged by all with whom he interacts. So many of his lines, spoken from a dramatic sense of artistic entitlement, are incredibly funny: “Were you sent here to ruin my evening and possibly my entire life?” “I cannot start my day with a confrontation. I simply have no time for confrontations.” “I’m admiring my own gallantry for eating it the way you prepared it.” It seems perfectly in character for him to play Pygmalion, if serially, with his model-lovers, and certainly Phantom Thread echoes some of the themes of Shaw’s seriocomic play.

Alma would seem to be the perfect Eliza Dolittle. She is grateful for everything Reynolds has given her, or so she tells a man—later revealed to be a doctor—who appears to be interviewing her, and claims to have given Reynolds every bit of herself in exchange. It is perhaps an act of misdirection on Anderson’s part that this episodic interview begins near the start of the film and catches up with the plot once the extent of Alma’s power has been revealed.

It’s ingenious that Anderson set a battle of the sexes in the world of high fashion during the 1950s, one of the most sexist decades of recent times. Fashion can be exceptionally cruel to women, and it would have been easy to tip the character of Reynolds Woodcock toward the monstrous. But Anderson and Day-Lewis reveal the soft and yielding side of masculinity appropriate to the story and the largely feminine world in which Woodcock works. Although Woodcock asserts his masculinity with his workaholism, he reveals his dependence on and deference to his rich female patrons repeatedly, for example, designing a dress for a deeply insecure matron, Barbara Rose (Harriet Sansom Harris), for her latest marriage and bowing to her insistence that he attend the wedding. It is this occasion that prompts a dramatic gesture from Alma to defend Reynolds’ honor like a proper swain (“It is no business of ours how Mrs. Rose behaves, but she can no longer act like this and be dressed by the House of Woodcock.”), as the pair strips the dress from the drunken, prostrate figure of Rose and swoon into each other’s arms as they carry it back to safety.

Reynolds has definitely met his match in Alma. She tells him that he will lose any staring contest with her—a childish dare that actually plays a big part in their relationship as she forces Reynolds to blink again and again in the face of her desires. She dislikes a fabric Reynolds has used to dress her, only to be told that she has no taste. Alma does not consent to be molded beyond recognition; she likes her own taste and says so. She holds to her own opinions, calls foul on Reynolds’ silly and unreasonable demands, and refuses to be sidelined or kept from doing what she wants to do in deference to Reynolds. In a obverse echo of Pygmalion, Alma asserts her worthiness by speaking to a client, a Dutch princess (Lujza Richter), after Reynolds fails to introduce them. Eventually, her insistent demand to be acknowledged and honored as the alpha female in Reynolds’ life will take an unexpected turn, one that Reynolds learns to appreciate as he discovers what a peculiar happiness he has found with Alma.

Fashion is a supporting character here, and Anderson shot the film with a gauzy, hermetic eye that suggests the rarified atmosphere haute couture occupies. Yet, surprisingly, his camera doesn’t tend to linger on the creations of costume designer Mark Bridges, preferring to treat them as living, breathing garments that move in the world. The spring fashion show that takes place shortly after Alma joins the household and staff occurs in the cramped quarters of the house, where it’s hard for Anderson’s camera to maneuver. The often fleeting glimpses of the garments are tantalizing, but the impression we get is that we are not rich enough to warrant more. The one gown that gets the most time in the film, the princess’ wedding dress, does so because a very ill Reynolds collapses onto it, scuffing it with shoe polish, tearing its bodice lace, and requiring the staff to pull an all-nighter to get it ready for shipment the next day. Even an untrained eye can see that the dress is not very good, indicating the rupture in Reynolds’ orderly, lifeless life that Alma has caused. I highly recommend you read Farran Smith Nehme’s informative interview with Bridges for more on all of the costumes and the real-life designers who influenced him.

Krieps and Day-Lewis create a very believable couple, and Anderson nails the little irritations that creep into every relationship, amping the sound of Alma buttering her toast and pouring her coffee to irritate Reynolds and draw a knowing laugh from the audience. I could relate to Alma’s quest for primacy in the life of a man who signals early on that she is likely a placeholder until the next muse comes along, even as Anderson’s scenario makes rooting for her difficult. I don’t think Day-Lewis could have been better at portraying this fusty Don Juan, and it was interesting comparing his distracted bachelor to his ardent lover in The Age of Innocence (1993), destined for the kind of animated lifelessness Reynolds embraced. Lesley Manville, an actress of exquisite skill, didn’t have much to work with in this film. Cyril (rather close to“cypher”) is like the invisible stagehands who change the scenery during blackouts, favoring solid-black or -navy suits occasionally adorned with a string of pearls and cheap-looking, tiny earrings comprising nothing but three seed pearls. I nearly fell off my seat in surprise when she tells Reynolds that she’s very fond of Alma and doesn’t want him to treat her badly. She only cracks a smile when she is in the showroom or with clients, who expect her to be pleasant. I know Manville has been garnering accolades, and she certainly creates an air of intimacy and solidarity with her brother. Nonetheless, I didn’t get much out of this buttoned-up character with no apparent life of her own.

In the end, Alma and the Woodcocks forge a bond and create a life beyond the House of Woodcock that makes them one of the happier families on the big screen. A strange one, to be sure, but that’s certainly cause for celebration.

  • Syd Henderson spoke:
    22nd/01/2018 to 7:41 am

    I agree with Alma about that fabric. It doesn’t suit her very well. Clearly a woman of taste.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    22nd/01/2018 to 9:13 am

    Thanks, Syd. Is there nothing else you care to talk about?

  • Syd Henderson spoke:
    23rd/01/2018 to 7:38 am

    Cyril is getting comparisons with Mrs. Danvers from “Rebecca” who also tries to control access to the male protagonist (though Cyril does not appear to be insane and is nowhere near as sinister). I’m not sure whether the movie ever specified how she felt about her mother.

    Daniel Day-Lewis is just about perfect. Reynolds has a lot of charm when he’s not being fussy (and the breakfast scene is very funny), and I liked Alma, at least till, well, you know. Vicky Krieps manages to equal Daniel Day-Lewis, which is no mean feat.

    Isn’t that disagreement of the fabric the first time Alma questions his judgment within his profession?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    23rd/01/2018 to 10:21 am

    Syd – I’ve seen those comparisons, too, but honestly, I don’t know where they’re coming from. Danvers is a servant; Cyril is Reynolds sister and business partner. Danvers was a nutty lesbian who tried to make trouble for the new Mrs. DeWinter. Cyril actually says she likes Alma. So all I can see is that they are reacting to the repression of both women, which is different in character.

    I agree about Day-Lewis and Krieps. The latter is a real revelation. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her in anything. And yes, I believe the comment about the fabric is her first act of professional rebellion.

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