Within the first half-hour of Phantom Thread, the prominent dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is asked by his new muse Alma (Vicky Krieps) the reason why he isn’t married. To which he replies matter-of-factly “I make dresses” as if that’s all the information one could need to understand his marital status, much to Alma’s amusement. But then he follows it up by saying “I’m certain I was never meant to marry. I’m a confirmed bachelor”, a very interesting statement that is simultaneously true and false. While it is certain from what we have seen of Mr Woodcock so far that he isn’t exactly the typical family-man, tied to his wife and home, he also isn’t as free as he would like to think. Like most other fabled artists and geniuses, the solipsistic Woodcock is essentially married to his work ― a bond so strong that it strains and encroaches upon his human relationships, much the same way that a possessive spouse might act when feeling threatened by their partner’s external affairs.
Phantom Thread is an elegant and nuanced exploration of the turbulent life of an artist devoted to his trade. Daniel Day-Lewis’ last hurrah to the world of cinema finds him at his most vulnerable, impeccable to the last detail, while also featuring an extremely powerful display from Vicky Krieps.
Reynolds Woodcock is a man of habit. Something that is immediately apparent in the film’s opening sequence from his meticulous morning routine of shaving, snipping facial hair and cuffing his purple socks ― all done with the precision of an artist. He is at his most peaceful when tirelessly working on some new design or intently scrutinizing the work of his tailors. And gets highly irritated when even the slightest detail goes out of order ― whether it be someone lovingly making him a delicious pastry that he didn’t ask for or his fiancée planning a surprise dinner for him. Reynolds lives with his stony-faced sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), whose icy exterior and impassive demeanour perfectly complements his finicky nature, and together they run the acclaimed House of Woodcock ― dressing members of the high society from socialites to princesses.
Thus it is easy to understand the conflict that arises when Alma surfaces and makes her way into their lives. She is as different from the Woodcocks as one can imagine, right from the very first scene where she appears as a clumsy waitress who almost trips over a table while wading across the room. Alma is a foreigner among their midst both figuratively and literally, down to her slight German accent, and the Woodcocks do little to help her fit in. She likes spontaneity and openly displays her emotions, instead of obscuring them behind a veil of charm school manners and professional etiquette. Although the mysterious Reynolds has taken a liking to her, he also compares her buttering the toast ‘noisily’ at the breakfast table to a horse galloping across the room; and openly shows his resentment when one day Alma decides to make him asparagus her way, instead of the way he usually prefers having it.
Woodcock’s character is a complex one, made up as it is by the minute interplay of the contrasting facets of his personality ― at once charming yet also repulsive, strong yet also vulnerable, emotional but also distant. And that is precisely why there’s probably no other living actor in the industry who could’ve done justice to such a nuanced role as Daniel Day-Lewis does. Phantom Thread is markedly different from his last collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood (2007), and Reynolds Woodcock is nothing like the rich, scheming oil baron Daniel Plainview. Yet the three-time Academy Award-winning actor has this infectious quality that makes it incredibly hard to take your eyes off him once DDL begins talking. With suits and grey hair he ably pulls off the debonair look of a highly-acclaimed fashionista and is also powerfully disarming as the helpless fever-stricken Reynolds, showing his strength as a veteran actor by effortlessly channelling his character’s frailty.
Early on in the film, soon after Woodcock first meets Alma, there’s a dressmaking scene that captures the core essence of the narrative, where Woodcock offers to make a garment for her. He begins trying out various styles of fabric on her body while also admiring and purveying her shape. However, this intimate and sensuous scene soon undergoes a tonal shift as Woodcock’s sister Cyril walks in, and assumes the atmosphere of a professional pattern drafting session. The mood changes almost instantly, as Alma feels reduced to a sequence of numbers and measurements. Cyril tells her that she’s ‘the ideal shape’, momentarily lifting her with what seems like a genuine compliment. But then she adds, “He likes a little belly” reminding Alma that he probably sees her as just another model, a medium for him to get to his art.
But perhaps more astounding than Day-Lewis was Vicky Krieps‘ cathartic portrayal of Alma. This little-known actress pulls off a startling array of emotions and moods, acting her heart out through her eyes and micro-changes in her facial expression. There is no exaggeration when I say that she often steals the show from Day-Lewis, a bold compliment of the highest order, making her presence felt subtly yet strongly every time the camera focuses on her. She indeed deserved an Academy Award nomination much more than Lesley Manville, who herself did a very neat job as Cyril. The character itself is very well-conceived, opening and closing the film for the audience, serving as the perfect antithesis to the dry and stringent Woodcock family. It feels almost deliberate that she was given no backstory, starting off as a clean slate whose emotional development takes place through her reactions to Reynolds ― each gesture of love and affection from him lifting her up and each ugly confrontation chipping away at her from the inside.
Like a phantom thread, the determined Alma weaves in and out of the fabric binding the Woodcocks — and almost invisibly stitches together the starkly contrasting personas and sensibilities of Reynolds and herself, tailoring a richly-embroidered relationship that could rival even the finest creations from the House of Woodcock.
Adherence to aesthetics, business and discipline seem to take precedence over valuing human emotions for the Woodcocks. In a particularly revealing sequence as Reynolds falls sick and collapses to the floor, bringing down a mannequin draped with a newly-made dress, we see his tailors rushing to give his sister the news ― but instead of worrying about what happened to Reynolds, everyone is concerned about how the dress now has holes in the front and black smudges at the bottom and whether it will now be ready in time for delivery. Clearly, for the Woodcocks, nothing is more sacred than business. Not even the well-being of their own. This is just one of the many instances of Paul Thomas Anderson’s subtle dark humour, which can be found throughout Phantom Thread, aimed as a satire on the materialistic, soulless people that inhabit the show business.
In yet another brilliantly conceived scene, the feverish Woodcock hallucinates his dead mother draped in the dress he made for her. As was revealed earlier, his mother is the source of his fantasy for the dressmaking profession ― a symbol representing his obsession with detail, his dissoluble bond with his work and his fetish for perfection in whatever he does. And at his weakest moment, poor Reynolds involuntarily questions his symbol ― “Are you here? Are you always here?” ― wondering for the first time in his life whether his defensive wall of meticulous routine and tireless work-ethic can still help him when he’s at his loneliest.
The entire film is filled with deliberately slow-moving cameras that are more than eager to linger on close-ups as they soak in every drop of emotion from the actors’ faces. Phantom Thread is Paul Thomas Anderson’s eighth feature film. And the way he has shot the Woodcocks’ stylish residence feels distinctively Kubrickian, accompanied by Johnny Greenwood’s classical score that assumes an identity of its own ― shifting and changing with the mood and play of power, guiding us in as the film burrows deeper and deeper into Woodcock and Alma’s twisted-yet-lovely dynamic. Anderson’s screenplay is very effective at capturing intimacy or the cold lack of it, building the film around a central crux ― Reynold’s discipline and stoicism vs. Alma’s spontaneity and compassion.
The constant tug of war between the two mysterious individuals, each determined to have their way in the relationship, eventually reconciles in a fashion that is darkly unforeseeable yet utterly delightful. This is a film that absolutely deserves to be seen at theatres, losing oneself within its dark web of emotional tension and Greenwood’s majestic score. You don’t need to be a fashion aficionado to appreciate the aesthetics of the film either because Phantom Thread, at its heart, deals with the universal themes of passion, love, ego and dedication ― a heady mix that is never afraid to go deep into the psyche of its characters and their imperfections.
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When not watching films or TV series, Shaswata can usually be found either reviewing them or battling writer’s block. A student of Physics, he is also deeply passionate about literature and music. His obsession lies with framing and composition in cinema, something he explores by capturing the most memorable moments through screenshots and sharing them on social media.