The first time I watched Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, I remember thinking uncertainly, “Did I feel what I was supposed to feel? Did I interpret this correctly? Did I ‘get it?’” At the time, I still believed that Great Films always had a Theme and Point and maybe even a Lesson. And some do, to be sure, though Anderson’s are not usually among them. His latest, Phantom Thread, similarly rejects a common interpretation, leaving the viewer not so much with an idea but a mood.
In a candlelit room, an unknown woman says to an unseen listener, “He has made my dreams come true, and I have given him what he desires most in return…every piece of me.” She says it proudly, and almost coyly, as if daring the listener to react to her hyperbole. The speaker is Alma, one pair of eyes into the eccentric and obsessive world of Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a renowned designer and dressmaker in 1950’s London.
Woodcock, a lifelong bachelor, lives alone with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville, disparagingly referred to as “the old so and so”), who cares for him like some sort of maid/mother/wife hybrid. She helps maintain a controlled domestic environment for her fastidious and irascible brother, alternately doting on him and chastising him. She handles his appointments, soothes his moods, and generally oversees all aspects of his life, both personal and professional.
But their carefully built and strictly upheld way of life is upset when Woodcock brings home Alma, a woman he meets while lunching at a cafe. She’s as obscure as he is esteemed—a single, young immigrant from somewhere else in Europe, working as a waitress—but their mutual fascination with each other is equal and immediate. What starts as a dinner date ends with an impromptu dress-fitting; Alma interprets the interaction as a sensual, and is shocked when Cyril appears to give her matter-of-fact input. Though Alma leaves confused, the encounter is enough to render her irrevocably intrigued. Almost overnight, she becomes Woodcock’s muse and lover, and almost as quickly, their infatuation with each other turns to frustration. He’s fussy and emotionally remote; she speaks when she should be silent and refuses when she should acquiesce. All the while, the ever-present Cyril plays both the mediator and the instigator.
Anderson could’ve so easily built a story around a more recognizable premise—the creative genius, demanding and brilliant, and his adoring, ingenue of a muse, who he pampers and abuses. But Alma, played with a magnetic calm by Vicky Krieps, refuses to accept Woodcock’s idiosyncrasies and demands without voicing her opinion and making some demands of her own. Both Cyril and Alma prove themselves to be match for Woodcock, not as artists but as equally stubborn and strong-willed people. They’re aware of (and appropriately enamored by) his creative talent and vision, but maintain no illusions about the man himself. Watching this trio interact is like watching a three-way chess game between masters of emotional warfare; every move results in a slight shift in the power structure. Day-Lewis is predictably sensational, but perhaps stands out less than usual due to the excellence of his two costars. He can still portray a dozen emotions with just the timbre of his voice, but Manville says almost as much with the raise of an eyebrow, and Krieps with her interrogating stare.
This bizarre love triangle is just one of the many elements that makes Phantom Thread so strange and compelling. This isn’t a film that takes some deeply-known human truth and presents it with such accuracy that we feel a flood of recognition. Rather, it’s a film that presents a foreign and unorthodox scenario but executes it with such precision and specificity that the characters’ actions and reactions—despite being consistently unexpected—feel deeply authentic.
I’ve said it before, but I believe the best art is always the result of a perfect marriage of form and content. The two should support or confront each other, the technique enhancing and complicating the narrative. Watching Phantom Thread is not just an emotional pleasure but a sensory one, as if you can not only see it and hear it but touch it and smell it: the rustle of silk down a hallway, the feeling of cool satin as it’s lowered around a woman’s bare shoulders, the aroma of morning coffee, the prick of a needle as it pokes through muslin. (I thought more than once of Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy, a film so committed to evoking sensory pleasure that it was rumored to have an on-set perfumist.)
If we’re to enter into this foreign world of dressmaking, it’s imperative that we’re invited in, and Anderson doesn’t just invite us but immerses us. Like Woodcock himself, he never shies from extreme specificity, refusing to compromise his vision for the sake of mass appeal. These are men who seek not relevance but excellence. Phantom Thread is meta in the least obnoxious sense of the word: it’s a piece of art about art, the story of a genius as told by a different sort of genius. But it’s also a love story, at turns elegant and romantic, slyly comedic, and darkly disturbing (just wait for the mushroom omelette scene). It honors not just art and artists but the people who love them, as complicated and infuriating a task as that might be. The only other film I can think of that accomplishes this much while wholly avoiding cliches is Jean Luc Godard’s 1963 film Le Mepris.
About two-thirds of the way into the movie, there’s a scene where Alma defiantly attends a ball alone after Woodcock refuses to leave his work. There, she’s a blur of dress and movement, whirling through the crowd, finally enjoying herself unfettered. But when Woodock shows up looking for her, for once it’s not to exert control but simply to find the woman he loves. As the they dance, the crowd disappears, and the two become quite literally the only thing in the room. Their relationship is imperfect, but they’re each a balm for the other, against loneliness, against boredom, against insignificance, against fear. Early on, Woodcock says to Alma, “I feel as though I’ve been looking for you for a very long time,” and we believe him. Watching Phantom Thread is like pulling a dusty book off the shelf, one that’s always been there but never read, and finally experiencing its private pleasure: challenging in its perversity, but comforting in its loveliness.