By Chris Wisniewski
Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, U.S./U.K., Focus Features
From Hard Eight through Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson, with his aspirations to Kubrick and Hitchcock, has always been swinging for the fences—for better more often than for worse. His latest, Phantom Thread, finds him operating in the register of Vertigo. A tale of romantic obsession and fetishistic desire, Phantom Thread interrogates a dysfunctional man’s need to remake and control a woman, but then flips that somewhat tired script, depicting her counter-efforts to regain power in the relationship and to possess the man who tries to own her. Early in the film, Cyril (Lesley Manville), the sister to Daniel Day-Lewis’s fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock, prepares to open the door of their home to a client, and walks right into a close-up in which she stares directly into the camera. Though Phantom Thread finds Manville riffing brilliantly on Rebecca’s Mrs. Danvers, this shot, rather than evoking Hitchcock, is a direct homage to Jonathan Demme, to whom the film is dedicated. It’s more than a superficial reference. As awkwardly bashful as Alma (Vicky Krieps), the waitress turned model who romances Reynolds, might appear to be, she is cut from the same cloth as Demme’s more overtly powerful heroines (one might think of Clarice Starling, or Rachel Getting Married’s Kym, or even the eponymous Ricki from Ricki and the Flash), women who to one extent or another struggle for a level of self-control and self-possession despite the manipulations of more ostensibly powerful men.
“Reynolds has made my dreams come true,” Alma tells an unseen listener in the movie’s first shot. There is a knowing irony in these opening moments. The statement nods toward the virtuosity and charisma of Reynolds—and by extension, the legendary actor who plays him opposite Krieps, who is by comparison obscure. Yet it privileges Alma’s dreams, Alma’s desire. It is Krieps’s face that opens the film, not Day-Lewis’s, and though Day-Lewis gives a typically rich, exacting, and precise performance, it is no stretch to say that Krieps walks away as the movie’s star and narrative center.
Set in an indeterminate postwar Britain, the movie begins with Reynolds, the master dressmaker, dispatching a lover. Over a high-calorie breakfast of pastries, a disgusted Reynolds admonishes his soon-to-be-ex that he said “no more sludgy things.” Reynolds’s hunger for his lover having abated, Cyril asks Reynolds if she should send her away, and he assents. Meanwhile, Anderson introduces the house of Reynolds, replete with seamstresses, technicians, and models. The filmmaking here is luscious, Anderson’s camera (he is the uncredited cinematographer) panning, tracking, and swooping as it showcases Mark Tildesley’s gorgeous production design and Mark Bridges’s glorious costumes while Jonny Greenwood’s score—featuring harps, piano, and flutes that serve as a constant presence throughout the film—accompanies the action. Since Anderson serves as cinematographer, there is sense in which the movie could be read as metaphor: Reynolds, the tortured, haunted, demanding artist may function as a stand-in for his writer-director-cinematographer author, who like Reynolds makes things that are, whatever else one might say about them, undeniably beautiful. This makes it all the more surprising that, as the movie plays out, Reynolds and his genius recede into the background, becoming context for Alma’s desire rather than the subject of the movie itself.
After ridding himself of one lover, Reynolds retreats to the countryside. He orders breakfast at the Hotel Victoria from Alma, the awkward waitress, and, having jettisoned the provider of the “sludgy things,” his hunger is voracious: Welsh rarebit, poached eggs, numerous breakfast meats. He flirts with her, but it is Alma who makes the most overt move, writing him a note in which she refers to him as a “hungry boy.” He takes her to dinner, then brings her home to take her measurements for a dress. Cyril arrives in time to assist, and the essential perversity of the relationship between Alma and Reynolds is clear from the onset. Food and fashion stand in for sex in this relationship, and while it isn’t clear initially what fuels Alma’s longing, Reynolds appears to see her as a muse. Reynolds, haunted by the ghost of his dead mother, sees Alma as creative inspiration but also appears to be incapable of, or at least unwilling to engage in, anything resembling traditional romance. Alma seems to be flattered by the attention but also unsatisfied with the idea of being a mere supporting player to her genius suitor. At the end of their first night together, Cyril takes a whiff of Alma’s breath, detecting the notes of sherry and lemon from the fish she had at dinner, and in doing so, asserts herself as an interloper in this strange love story.
From the outset of their oddly, ambiguously asexual romance, Alma has several women who stand between her and Reynolds: his dead mother, his clients, and Cyril. The unexpected thrill of Phantom Thread lies in witnessing how Alma, who appears at first naive and in over her head, knowingly and strategically takes on these rivals, with intermittent success. As their romance progresses, Alma conspires to dispatch the rest of the house one evening so she can cook Reynolds a private dinner. Cyril advises her against the maneuver, to no avail. When Reynolds arrives to an empty home, he is visibly agitated, wondering where his sister is, and later, at dinner, critiquing Alma’s preparation of asparagus. Though her attempt at winning Reynolds’s unqualified devotion through this private dinner is unsuccessful, it provides one of several pieces of evidence that Cyril, played to icy perfection by Manville, may be more sympathetic to Alma’s cause than she first appears. She knows that Reynolds slavishly guards his routines, particularly around his meals, and counsels Alma accordingly.
The dinner marks a turning point in the film. In the first half, Reynolds the master fashion designer takes center stage, preparing beautiful clothes that Anderson’s camera dotes on lovingly, while the movie probes his neuroses and fixations. In time, though, Phantom Thread becomes Alma’s film. This pivot occurs most clearly in a hallucination featuring Reynolds’s mother. Far from unlocking or revealing Reynolds’s emotional traumas and fixations, this food-poisoning-induced fever dream marks the moment at which Alma manages to replace Reynolds’s dead mother as the central woman in his life—via an audacious and far more successful culinary manipulation than her private dinner.
As its focus shifts, Phantom Thread is less concerned with the fashion world and Reynolds’s status within it as it narrows its focus on Alma’s relationship to Reynolds. At one point, Cyril confronts him with the fact that his clothes are no longer considered “chic,” news that basically comes from nowhere from a narrative perspective. By the time Cyril delivers this information, though, chic feels rather than beside the point—fads and fashions being an incidental concern when the matter of romantic dominance in a dysfunctional relationship hangs in the balance. Meals, rather than runways, take on primary significance, and the heightened sound of butter being spread on toasted baked goods carries more dramatic weight than anything involving Reynolds’s clothes or clients. If Reynolds does stand in for Anderson, the second hour of Phantom Thread plays as an oddly self-effacing self-portrait, one that is less interested in aesthetic perfection than in emotional honesty. Phantom Thread becomes a more difficult movie as it unfolds, less dazzling, more perverse, and perhaps more rewarding. It is possible that Anderson is done making movies that are chic; but then, Kubrick and Hitchcock spent long stretches being out of fashion as well. Phantom Thread may or may not earn the comparison to Vertigo. Maybe the highest praise I can offer for now is that it is a question I’ll ponder over many years and repeated viewings.