Film Review: Phantom Thread
When you’ve shaken off the gossamer poison mist of Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest, you might find yourself pondering something that’s never spelt out: what is a phantom thread, exactly? Is it a reference to the messages and memories—part of the dress, but not quite—that high-society designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) sews into his creations? Is it like a phantom limb: the feeling that you’re sewing even when you’re not—or, to extend the metaphor, an obsessive creator’s inability to switch off? Or could it be the invisible thread that binds people when all logical and emotional reasons for them to remain together have frayed?
Phantom Thread is the second 2017 film after Darren Aronofsky’s Mother that explores what it must be like (for a woman) to live in the same house as a (male) creative genius. But where Aronofsky’s film escapes into giddy Grand Guignol, Anderson’s first non-American feature remains claustrophobically focused on Woodcock and his relationship with his older sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), and the woman who becomes his model, muse and lover, Alma (Vicky Krieps). Reynolds first sees Alma at the diner she waitresses at; we know he’s low on inspiration and that his longtime model (and, it is suggested, one-time paramour) hasn’t got the figure for his fittings anymore. Something about Alma grabs Reynolds, and he moves in like a shark. His lunch order is a seduction, and it’s not surprising that’s she ready to go out with him by the time he’s done eating.
The 15-odd minutes that take Reynolds and Alma from her workplace to a restaurant, then back to his place, and finally to his workplace, is an example of the sort of concise mastery Anderson can get up to (he’s also capable of a shaggier, looser mastery, like Boogie Nights or his last film, Inherent Vice). When Reynolds asks a pliable Alma if she’ll do something for him, we understand the kind of compulsive genius he is, unable to see through a romantic conquest without turning it into work. Still, as she tries on one of his dresses and he appraises her, the spell is strong. It shatters a moment later, with the arrival of Cyril. Jonny Greenwood’s romantic score gives way to silence, and Alma finds herself being coolly appraised by brother and sister.
The fitting is a success, at any rate, and Alma moves in to live with the Woodcocks. Almost immediately, Reynolds starts showing signs of irritation; a spell of clanking and crunching from Alma at breakfast prompts the memorable outburst, “It’s like you rode a horse across the room.” Reynolds is as measured in his anger as Bill the Butcher and Daniel Plainview were explosive in theirs, and Day-Lewis is in withering form, but his adversaries here are formidable: Cyril, more clipped and cutting than he is, and the weirdly implacable Alma. The latter’s determination to define their relationship, and Reynolds’ reluctance to do so, leads the film into some very twisted areas. “Have I been dropped behind enemy lines?” he asks her when she has the temerity to send the help home and make him dinner. Little does he know...
One of the phantoms hovering over this film is Alfred Hitchcock, surfacing not only in the similar-sounding “Woodcock” and the naming of Alma (also Hitchcock’s wife’s name) but in the similarities with Rebecca, another curdled British romance with beautiful clothes and a haunted house. But there’s another, stronger presence informing this film—Ingmar Bergman, whose centenary is this year. Alma is the name of one of his most famous characters, the nurse played by Bibi Andersson in Persona (the Alma of Phantom Thread too becomes a nurse of sorts). The hard, clear light that filters through the windows in the Woodcock household, illuminating the fine hairs on Alma’s face, has the same unforgiving quality as the light in Bishop Vergérus’s home in Fanny and Alexander. The acid exchanges between Cyril, Alma and Reynolds are such that even the Swedish master might have thought them too toxic. And there’s a line that could have come out of any Bergman film: “There is an air of quiet death in this house.”
Warming up with a series of memorable, stripped-down music videos for Radiohead and Haim, Anderson shot Phantom Thread without a regular cinematographer, in collaboration with lighting cameraman Michael Bauman and camera operator Colin Anderson (he doesn’t credit himself—another phantom thread). His collaboration with Greenwood, though, is still going strong; the score, initially lush and romantic, takes on a nervy quality as the Woodcocks step up their mindgames. For all the technical prowess on display, this isn’t a film that’s easy to inhabit as a viewer. It’s as removed from everyday experience, as chilly and perfect as a couture piece.