This is one of those posts that I’ve been slightly dreading writing. Whenever I have to write about something I don’t particularly like, or something that I’ve only recently seen or played, the words and ideas flow pretty reasonably. But when it’s a piece of media like this, that I have such a strong affection for, then I become hesitant. How can I possibly put into words how much I love this film, and more importantly, why I love it? It might be that I have to return to the topic a couple of times before I write something I’m truly satisfied with, but that’s the nature of the beast, I guess.
It’s also hard to talk about Phantom Thread more specifically, because many of my feelings towards it concern its aesthetic. Now, I mainly talk on this blog about games, and even more specifically than that, about narrative-driven games. Of course, games are as much of a visual medium as films, but when I talk about Ace Attorney, much of my attention goes on the narrative, because the rest of the game – from its music, to its character designs, to its gameplay – is designed to serve that narrative. Narrative is an important part of Phantom Thread as well, and will take up a lot of the focus of this article, but the aesthetic here feels so much more important in describing the film that it can’t be relegated to a few paragraphs talking only about how it props up the narrative.
And yet, I also struggle to put into words what appeals to me about its aesthetic. I can show you screenshots, and link music from the film (and I certainly will), but translating the appeal of these into words is an impossible task. You can attempt to dissect a narrative using words, and you can explain how a certain shot works in creating a character dynamic, but you can’t properly explain its appeal in the same way. This is all a weird preamble to tell you to watch the film, basically. I normally put a spoiler warning at the top of all my posts, but here it isn’t so much about spoiling the film as much as it is about wanting people to, at the very least, have a picture of it in their minds. (Thanks.)
Anyway, Phantom Thread, which came out in the US in 2017, is the latest film by Paul Thomas Anderson, whose work I’ve always been fond of. While his sweeping epics such as There Will Be Blood and The Master get most of the attention when looking at his back-catalogue, I’ve always had a soft spot for his weird romantic comedy Punch Drunk Love (i.e. one of the only good Adam Sandler vehicles). So it was a pleasure for me to see him return to the romcom with this film, although somewhat disguised as a There Will Be Blood-style portrait of a troubled male genius.
Indeed, Phantom Thread does contain themes of toxic masculinity, but by focusing more heavily on the character of Alma, the whole film being framed by her story to Dr. Hardy, the central topic becomes that of the toxic romance between the two. Really, it’s a film of a power struggle between the two central players; Daniel Day Lewis’ Reynolds Woodcock and Vicky Krieps’ Alma Elson. The film follows their relationship as the balance of power shifts between the two parties, until it finally reaches a delicate equilibrium.
The film starts, of course, with Woodcock having command of the relationship. Their initial meeting has Alma, then working as a waitress, taking orders from him, after having tripped up on first seeing him. But it’s important to note that, even at this point, Alma stands over him – positioning that will be echoed throughout the film, hinting towards a fragile balance of power – though Woodcock is the one who is giving the orders, she already has some grasp over him. On their first date, Woodcock continues to assert his dominance within the relationship, not eating but only watching her, and forcefully taking off her makeup.
Again, however, Alma isn’t necessarily completely disarmed. As Woodcock stares at her in front of the fire, she notes “If you want to have a staring contest with me, you will lose”, and when Woodcock states that his nature as a bachelor is “incurable”, she responds that she thinks he’s only acting strong. It’s important to have looked at this scene in some detail, as it’s the first real interaction between the two and contains a lot of what makes their relationship tick. Woodcock is clearly confident in himself and his power over women; we’ve already seen in the first breakfast scene that he has had a string of girlfriends before Alma, who he dismisses without much thought before moving on to the next woman who catches his eye. But while he is confident here, Alma manages to critique him in small ways, to start to make cracks in his control.
Woodcock’s desire for women to control has already been established, but it’s only when Woodcock dresses Alma for the first time that her motivations are made clear. When the initial measuring happens, Anderson shoots the scene with more than a hint of sensuality; close zooms on Woodcock’s hands moving around Alma’s body and furtive glances and smiles between the couple. The music does a lot of the work in this scene as well; Johnny Greenwood’s score is one of the film’s strongest suits. However, when Cyril – Reynolds’ sister – enters, the music fades and the tone shifts. Leslie Manville’s performance is brilliantly passive-aggressive, and her effect on the atmosphere signals her power within the scene. As the measurements continue, there are still shots of Reynolds and Alma, but with the intrusion of Cyril’s pencil marking down Alma’s measurements sterilises the scene. At this moment, both we the audience and Alma begin to understand that there’s something special about Reynolds Woodcock’s undivided attention, and it becomes the object of Alma’s desires for the rest of the film.
We see continued examples of this all throughout the film; the first montage of Alma and Woodcock’s time together is interrupted by the scraping sound of Cyril joining her table onto theirs at the restaurant; Cyril’s assertion about the quality of fabric that Alma doesn’t like seems to turn Reynolds against Alma, and Alma’s solo dinner plan is spurred on by her jealousy of Reynolds’ attention towards the princess. Of course, the awareness of other woman towards Reynolds occasionally works in Alma’s favour; it’s only after the two girls compliment Reynolds in the restaurant that him and Alma finally have sex. But generally, when Reynolds regards other women, it spurs on Alma’s desire to have his undivided attention. Her eventual plot to poison him is also the result of this. It happens for the first time after the disastrous dinner she plans; his attention there has been focused still on Cyril and the princess, and it happens for the second time after he’s again drawn back to Cyril, as well as the woman who hosts the Christmas dinner they attend.
While Alma’s desire for Reynolds’ undivided attention is made clear, we have to look a bit deeper to see why she’d care so much about someone who seems to be such a petulant man-child. On a surface level, there are lines that reveal some of this. During the first montage the two share, Alma’s voiceover says ‘I never really liked myself. I thought my shoulders were too wide, that my neck was skinny like a bird… But in his work I become perfect. And I feel just right. Maybe that’s how all women feel in his clothes.’
It’s certainly true that most of the women who we see wearing his clothes are similarly given confidence from his work, but looking at the exceptions reveals that the appeal of Woodcock’s work is not simply from his clothing. Barbara Rose, for example, finds it impossible to look beautiful in the work he makes for her; not because her dress is any more ugly than the rest of his stuff, but because he doesn’t care for her. It’s the way he treats the women who wear his clothes that make them return to him, and make them feel ‘just right’. Fashion is certainly important to Phantom Thread, but the film seems to imply that it’s the attention Reynolds foists upon his clients and his muses that has allowed him his continued success. Day Lewis certainly sells this – as cruel and abusive as Reynolds Woodcock can be, the charming warmth in his eyes cannot be understated. Every aspect of the film tries to reinforce how it might feel to receive that; the music is at its calmest and most beautiful when he’s in a good mood, and the lighting in his work spaces and when he’s at his most vulnerable is warmer than much of the rest of the film.
Speaking of his most vulnerable, it’s the knowledge of his shifting moods that Alma exploits to control him by the end of the film. There’s something that at first seems a little insidious about the central relationship in Phantom Thread; although Reynolds is an abusive, childish bully of a boyfriend to Alma, she sticks with him for those moments of warmth, and the film perhaps doesn’t treat this depiction of a clearly abusive relationship with some of the gravitas it might deserve. In fact, many of the scenes are treated almost as comedic; the fight the two have over dinner is focused around how buttery some asparagus is, and I remember laughs in the cinema when I first saw it. But the film’s attention really lies in how Alma seeks to shift the balance of the relationship in her favour, starting with her realisation early in the film that Reynolds is at his most tender when ill.
Reynolds’ illnesses aren’t the only indication of a more caring mood; his hunger also seems to correlate to his good mood (it’s this that tips Alma off to his feelings about the princess; his enthusiasm over porridge and eggs happens just after getting the order for the wedding dress). The desire to be fed and the desire to be cared for are both linked to a quite Freudian need for a mother figure that Reynolds obsesses over. During the couple’s first date, he creepily mentions that he keeps a locket of his mother’s hair sewn into the lining of his suit, and Cyril, in her admonishment of Reynolds, acts as a sort of strict mother figure to him. He lacks, however, the more caring mother figure, which he seeks in Alma. When he is first poisoned by her, he hallucinates his mother standing in his room, before she vanishes when Alma moves through the frame. At the film’s ending, after his second poisoning, one of the final shots is his head in her lap; him submitting to letting her care for him.
It’s when Reynolds starts to see Alma in this way that she finally gains the upper hand within the relationship. Her poisoning him becomes the crux point upon which the power dynamics of the relationship turns. Beforehand, Reynolds has been in control of the relationship’s ups and downs – Alma has been held in the balance of whether he will show her love or refuse to. Every time she gains some confidence, he shoots her down. After the two first have sex, she enters the breakfast room and kisses Reynolds, but she’s quickly reprimanded by him for buttering her toast too loudly. When she tries to have some power over him by making dinner for the two of them and emptying the house, it initially seems to have worked; she stands tall above him on the stairs, and he is forced to crane his head up to look at her and compliment her for having prepared a romantic evening. But even here, he gradually regains control over the scene – he gets to halfway up the stairs, then beckons her down to look at her dress, and finally ascends up the stairs to have a bath and snub her meal, while she’s forced to head down; their positioning throughout the scene echoing the balance of power.
After the poisoning, Reynolds proposes to Alma, and she finally realises her newfound power. Seemingly a response to an earlier confrontation between the two where Alma accuses Reynolds of turning her life into nothing but ‘waiting for you to get rid of me,’she makes him wait for her answer. At the breakfast table on their honeymoon, he’s now unable to say anything about her noisy eating and it’s now him that becomes jealous of her spending the Christmas dinner talking to Dr. Hardy instead of paying him any attention. She no longer has to wait for him, and instead when he refuses to go dancing on New Year’s Eve, simply walks off, leaving him tiny in the frame, a small head peering to see if she’s really gone, before pacing around in front of the door. Although he’s lost the power, he first tries desperately to get it back, dragging her away from the dance hall. Eventually, he even comes crawling back to Cyril, who sits on a high chair and looks down on Reynolds as he petulantly complains about his loss of influence, both on the fashion world and in his own personal life.
Everything that’s interesting about the film’s characters and aesthetic finally comes to a head in the final scene where Alma poisons Reynolds for the second time. I’ve talked extensively about the characters and their shifting power in this essay, and here it comes to the fore; Alma, having heard Reynolds’ complaints about her, decides to once again bring him down a peg. The main theme swells to its most dramatic here; it in itself is a theme that rises and falls, and thus echoes the constantly changing relationship of the relationship. As Alma brings the mushrooms to the frying pan and starts to add ever more butter, the camera shifts between the two of them and the pan; Krieps’ expression is sublimely passive-aggressive, almost safe in the knowledge of her victory over Reynolds, while Day Lewis wryly smiles at her, seeming to know instinctively that she’s going to poison him.
Eventually the music fades, becoming quieter and more staccato. Alma continues to assert her dominance over Reynolds in the smallest ways, such as lifting the jug when she pours the water to increase the volume. For as grand as their romance seems, the meat of it is still in the petty minutiae, elevated in its importance by cinematography and sound design. Reynolds, in his toying smile, attempts to maintain an air of control over the situation, but eventually he eats the poisoned omelette. In this, Reynolds accepts his fate. It would be wrong to say, however, that this is a relationship whose abuse has simply shifted. Of course, Alma poisoning Reynolds is abusive, but in his acceptance the two find a ground where their relationship works; in Alma, Reynolds has finally found the caring mother figure he so desires, and in Reynolds, Alma has found how to control the man who can give her the attention she wants.
After Alma has revealed to Reynolds explicitly that she’s poisoned him, his only response is ‘Kiss me my girl, before I’m sick,’ at which the music again comes to a crescendo. The film now catches up to where it began; Alma talking to the doctor. She mentions that her and Reynolds will always be together, be it in this life or the next, or the one after that. Their fates are intertwined; their relationship having reached its apex, it has finally provided both of them with the specific kind of love they need. The very final shot of the film shows Reynolds making a dress for Alma. He starts bent over her, but eventually rises up and stands, the two of them looking at each other on a more equal footing.
I mentioned in my post on Pale Flower that both of these films find the beauty in a relationship built on an ultimately unhealthy foundation. And I think that’s true. In many aspects, the relationship between Alma and Reynolds is one that stems from a ground of abuse; in order to get what they want from each other, the two are constantly battling. However, Phantom Thread also doesn’t pretend there isn’t love in the relationship. Pale Flower imagines that any relationship coming from a negative place is doomed to tragedy. Phantom Thread imagines a happier end for the couple, but it’s ultimately unclear if Alma’s visions of the future will ever come true in the way she hopes. Her truce with Reynolds may eventually collapse, but the film leaves us to ponder the future for the couple while leaving us with the hopeful glimpse that romance is possible, even for these two.