Phantom Thread (2017) is the eighth feature film by writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson. I have been a fan of Anderson’s work since I saw Boogie Nights (1997) in my freshman year of college, and have watched each of his subsequent films in the theater. The theater is the proper place to watch Anderson’s lush, luscious films, although they are also so strong as narratives that they hold up just fine on, say, a 19″ Toshiba television with a built-in VCR, which is how I repeatedly watched Blockbuster-remaindered cassettes of Boogie Nights and Magnolia (1999) circa 1998-2001. But again: The theater is the proper place to see an Anderson film, and Phantom Thread is exceptionally lovely on the big screen—one doesn’t so much watch it as imbibe it, or perhaps, in a reversal of that metaphor, sink into it. What I’m saying is: Watch Phantom Thread in the theater.
Is “Watch it in the theater” not enough in the way of argument, reader? Perhaps you want, like, details?
Here are some details I knew going in to the film (I generally try to avoid reviews and any press on any film I plan to see): The film was written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; the film stars Daniel Day-Lewis portraying a fashion designer; the film is set sometime in the 1950s.
My wife and I went to see the film yesterday afternoon and we loved it, then discussed it at length at dinner, and then again this morning over breakfast (perhaps prompted by “breakfast” itself, one of the film’s motifs). It’s a strange, beautiful, perplexing romantic comedy that will disarm and unsettle audiences. I can’t wait to see it again.
The Plot and the Major Characters
1950s. London and countryside environs. Reynolds Jeremiah Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a famous fashion designer who dresses the highest of high in European society. He and his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) run the House of Woodcock, following a precise, obsessive routine. At the film’s outset, Reynolds meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress in a countryside restaurant. He asks her to dinner that night, and from there the two enter into a strange relationship. The film’s trajectory explores the conflicts and confluences of that strange relationship, tracing how Reynolds’ and Alma’s romance intertwines with Cyril, business, design, and art. (Oh. And Reynolds’ and Cyril’s dead mother).
Cinematography, Score, Costume Design and Set Design
Gorgeous. Like I said, go see the film—the aesthetics are marvelous, rich, sumptuous. I’ve been writing about Paul Thomas Anderson as an auteur (and will continue to do so), but his production team is fantastic, and I think there’s an implicit argument in Phantom Thread itself against the whole auteur concept. (If you listen to or read interviews with Anderson, he will often use the pronoun “We” when discussing his work).
Phantom Thread’s Place in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Filmography
Phantom Thread might be Anderson’s “best” film to date: it is certainly one of the best-acted, best-shot, and best-directed, and its editing and pace move with a more precise rhythm than his looser and more sprawling films. I loved it, but it’s not necessarily my favorite Anderson film. If pressed to choose a favorite, I might point to the weird sprawl of Inherent Vice (2014) or the perfect imperfection of The Master (2012)—or just settle on There Will Be Blood (2007). Many Anderson fans point to Anderson’s shortest film, Punch-Drunk Love (2002) as his best.
In some ways, Phantom Thread has more in common with Punch-Drunk Love than his other films. They are both romantic comedies featuring emotionally-challenged leads who find their way to a strange resolution. In any case, Phantom Thread is an engaging character study focused on just a few intense personalities—like The Master, Punch-Drunk Love, or There Will Be Blood. It’s more focused in its vision than Boogie Nights or Magnolia, and more emotionally “true” than Anderson’s first feature, Hard Eight (1996). Those first three films seem to me particularly beholden to Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman, but Phantom Thread continues to show Anderson overcoming his anxiety of influence. (Although I’ll admit that I was occasionally reminded of Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (1993) while watching Phantom Thread—probably because of the luxuriant imagery. And Daniel Day-Lewis. Anderson’s film is superior).
The Goddamn Movie Trailer
The discussion of the film that follows contains spoilers, including descriptions of the film’s ending
Phantom Thread is a romantic comedy. This fact may be lost on many audience members (if the audience I saw the film with is any indication). It’s true that it takes some time to tune into the particular humorous rhythms of Reynolds, Alma, and Cyril, but each character is quite funny. I found myself laughing out loud a lot, particularly as the film progressed. There are some standout comedic bits, like the “two Mrs. Woodcocks” scene, or the part where Alma and Reynolds recover a dress for the honor of The House of Woodcock, or the “Fuck chic!” bit. But humor is always used to advance the plot as well as the film’s themes of control and submission. Hence there’s a subtle menace always tingling under the surface of Phantom Thread—Gothic tinges that both darken the humor and license its depth. The best comedy is underwritten with horror.
The film’s romantic trajectory is also underwritten with horror. The first time Alma poisons Reynolds’ lapsang tea with toxic mushrooms leaves the audience in a kind of radical doubt: What are Alma’s intentions? Does Alma herself even understand her intentions?
The second poisoning scene at the end of the film, where Alma prepares an omelette for Reynolds, addresses those questions in an open, honest way. It also answers the scene earlier in the film where Alma prepares a surprise meal for Reynolds, only to be rejected. (One lingering unanswered question: Did Alma make anything besides asparagus?).
The film concludes with a bizarre image of a working romantic partnership—a loving marriage in which games of control and submission are played openly and honestly. Additionally, the ending confirms family—a complete family—and extends that family into an imaginative future. We see communication—love—a happy ending.
Phantom Thread is a great date movie.
Phantom Thread is about hunger. Literal and figurative hunger. Most romantic comedies, and indeed mainstream films in general, eschew scenes that actually depict food being eaten—more often we get the imagery of a meal without literal consumption. There is something terribly disconcerting, intimate (and perhaps even pornographic) about watching someone eat. But we see food being consumed in Phantom Thread, and indeed meals serve as ritualistic placeholders throughout the film that show us much about the characters’ personalities—their desires, fears, anxieties, and so on.
Reynolds’ appetite is at times enormous, as when he first meets Alma (and orders the “Hungry Boy” special). He is able to command in that first encounter—she’s a waitress taking an order after all—but as Phantom Thread progresses we see conflicting drives develop between the couple. Reynolds wants to command and control, to find his hunger for a muse in Alma satisfied on his own terms. But Alma has her own hungers, and one of those hungers is to disrupt Reynolds’ rigid diet. Significantly, the name Alma can be translated as “nourishing” or “feeds the soul.” Alma is not just a nourishing muse though, but rather a creative force who seeks to shape her own designs into redesigning the House of Woodcock. Ultimately, Phantom Thread depicts romance as a navigation of often-conflicting hungers.
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the sculptor Pygmalion falls in love with a statue of his own creation, who, inspirited by Aphrodite, comes to life. They marry, beget a child, and live happily ever etc. You know the story, of course, for it has been repeated throughout the culture forever, from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale to Hawthorne’s “The Birth-Mark” to Shaw’s titular play to My Fair Lady to HBO’s recent Westworld television show. In other words, the story of a male “genius” artist/artisan-type attempting to fashion a (malleable) woman into his ideal vision is nothing new.
Phantom Thread doesn’t so much depict the Pygmalion myth as it disrupts it. Alma isn’t a passive, malleable blank space for Reynolds to mark up. Designing a dress for her, Reynolds declares early in the film that he can choose or not choose to give Alma a breast. While there’s an obvious sexual/aesthetic connotation here to his claims of control, note also that the breast is a nourishing organ (and again, Alma connotes nourishment). Note also that Reynolds is deeply beholden to his own creator, his dead mother—and that he keeps a lock of her hair or an image of her sewn into his jackets, right over his own breast. You’ve read a bit of Freud, no? Well so and anyway, Reynolds tells Alma early in the film that he’s “strong,” an assertion she immediately contests—and then contests throughout the film, asserting her own strength of influence over Reynolds (and, in extension, his sister Cyril and his dear dead mother). Alma creates her own dress, her own art; she overcomes the forces that seek to confine her to mere model or muse, and instead takes Reynolds as her muse, shaping his will to her art, her desire, her hunger.
The central characters in Phantom Thread understand that the clothes that they make are not just commodities to be sold on a market but aesthetic pieces that are both part and parcel of the House of Woodcock—they are “signed” by Woodcock, but they are also the signature of the House itself.
(Parenthetically: A whole essay might be written about the analog here to movie making w/r/t to Woodcock the auteur who relies on a labor force of skilled artisans to make “his” vision come to life. In Phantom Thread, Anderson shows that creation is a deeply collaborative process, and that even what we take for “inspiration” is a form of collaboration).
Reynolds also “signs” his creations by stitching secret words and phrases into them. He’s hardly an egomaniac though, despite his sense of artistic self-worth. In one significant example, Reynolds slips the secret blessing “Never Cursed” into the wedding dress he’s made for a German princess. In a sublime assertion of strength though, Alma tears the blessing from the dress and presumably keeps it for herself. She confers upon herself the blessing that she believes is her right, a blessing in line with the future she imagines for herself as one of the creative stewards of the House of Woodcock.
Omelette à la Alma
—Two or three large fresh eggs
–Locally-sourced toxic mushrooms (e.g. clitocybe rivulosa)
–Chives or green onions
–Salt and pepper to taste
Heat an iron skillet and add butter—just a bit more than your partner might like. Roughly chop the mushrooms and saute them in the pan until tender. Make sure your partner is close enough to smell the toxic intoxicating smell of the mushrooms cooking. Beat your eggs and add them to the pan, gently stirring the mushrooms into the eggs. Fold the omelette and cook till firm; flip to finish, adding chopped chives or chopped green onions.
Serve your partner the omelette, looking directly into their eyes. Perhaps offer wine or a martini. Sit tenderly observing your partner consume the nourishment you’ve created for them.
Feel the love.