Paul Thomas Anderson traffics in films that are purposefully oblique. They are sustained on mood, on character, on a ripeness of visual poetry that recalls the titans of cinema in a way that refracts them like a funhouse mirror. Phantom Thread, for all of its straight-ahead narrative propulsion, is as fascinatingly opaque as The Master or Magnolia.
Not only is there a sense of tightly-wound control from the first frame, but there’s a palpable sense of unease as to where this is going for a long period of time. Open with a harsh white background and the title in ornately circular script and a sound of organized noise or elegantly controlled feedback. If you’re getting the sense that you’re about to engage in an old-fashioned gothic romance, then you’re right.
The world of Reynolds Woodcock is one of both meticulous routine and an ominous sense that everything will explode in either violence or carnality, maybe both, at any moment. His co-dependent relationship with his sister, Cyril, is one that extends from the professional to the personal as she functions as both sister, matron, assistant, schoolmarm, and drill sergeant. She never rises her voice above a clipped, patient tone that exudes icy dominance and remove even when trying to display kindness or give a compliment.
Like a sacrificial lamb stumbles an innocent, Alma, the latest in a long line of dewy woman functioning as muses and goddess for Woodcock before he grows bored of them and sends them packing with cruel efficiency through Cyril’s machinations. Yet there’s something about Alma, a core of steely resolve, a rebellious streak, a refusal to merely placate egos and function as an object. It is through her that we hear this story, and we’re never quite sure about how truthful her words are at any given moment.
Yet it’s that sense of unease that makes Phantom Thread so absorbing. For all of the outward beauty of the clothes and settings, for all of the considerable sex appeal that Daniel Day-Lewis contains, there’s a burbling sense that something is never quite “right” about anything happening in this world. It all appears orderly and measured, immaculate and luxuriant, a world where a shadow contains much portent of things to come.
Anderson has frequently flirted with magical realism or outright dipped into near-biblical imagery, and Phantom Thread is possibly his most outward concession to unreality yet. Reynolds Woodcock sees his mother while sick in bed, and we have no reason to believe that his spectral presence is a mere hallucination. Death and ghosts of things past haunt the Woodcock’s palatial rooms and relationships.
Reynolds and Cyril are both committed to the legacy of the Woodcock fashion house. Both operate under the illusion that any piece of couture will last forever, and maybe they will but there’s no way to know or guarantee posterity despite their best efforts. It is in this obsession with death and legacy that Phantom Thread first shows its gothic romance cards, as it is also here that the ghost of Woodcock’s mother appears. Suddenly you’re connecting Phantom Thread to works like Wuthering Heights and Rebecca, and the threads (no pun intended, I promise) connecting them become a fairly straight line.
Then the relationship with Alma takes on stranger contours and actions. He reveals a certain superstitious center to his character early on when he admits to putting messages into the dresses he makes for his clients, there’s a particularly loaded one for a princess that I won’t reveal, as if he’s either blessing the garments or trying to exorcise them from his personal demons. Alma begins as a passive listener to this, filing it away for future use, and becoming a blank form for him to sculpt.
Sculpt he does, but Alma quickly reveals herself as someone malcontent with living her life in so passive a manner. She upends his orderly life and rebels against his complicated rules and regulations, throws his routines into disarray and asserts her power over him with some surprising choices. A late scene where she delivers a monologue about wanting him kept on his back flashes a kinkier, more disturbed side to this relationship and Alma’s character than we had previously been allowed to witness.
Naturally, much of Phantom Thread is about pageantry, how could it not be when the main character is a couturier, and power. That crosses over into the central triangle of the film. Reynolds and Alma duel and love with such ferocity that the twin points became an equilibrium between the characters. Reynolds starts off as the one with all the power in the relationship, but Alma subverts his expectations and throws his routine out the window to recreate another with her at the center. Where does this leave Cyril in the end? She was the original hidden, guiding hand of Woodcock up to this point, and we don’t get a clear answer. She does not give us her place in her brother’s life easily, that much is clear.
There’s no easy answers here, as there aren’t in many of Anderson’s films post-Punch Drunk Love since they’ve gotten increasingly austere and esoteric. Frankly, I enjoying trying to limn the mysteries of his films, especially if they contain performances as impeccable and magnetic as Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville, and Vicky Krieps are here. Day-Lewis is no surprise, but Manville manages to not only hold the scene with him but overpower him at certain points, which is no small feat and a point to underscore the fact that Day-Lewis’ Reynolds is a man who wants to domineered and disciplined by a motherly figure in a persistent state of organized chaos and soothing love. Krieps takes that baton and runs with it into a perverse place that places their love as both nurturing and a model of erotic power imbalances.
Phantom Thread was a shock to me, but in the best of ways. It presents a triangle of people as an every changing organism where power gets displaced as often as the wind blows. If this isn’t one of 2017’s best films, then I don’t know what else could possibly compare.