Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread devotes a significant amount of time to acclimating us to the House of Woodcock, ostensibly run by Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a renowned dressmaker in 1950s-era London. Anderson drinks in the stylish townhouse where much of the film takes place, framing a spiral staircase in worshipfully low angles as Reynolds’s maids, seamstresses, and models ascend it each morning to commence in the ritual of their work. These svelte montages, accompanied by Jonnny Greenwood’s hypnotic score, viscerally communicate the profound fulfillment that an artist derives from knowing that everything is in the right place at the right time.
Few films are this alive to the equilibrium that many artists require in order to create, mainly those lucky enough to be spoiled. Artists work in subjective realms, and often require lives that are ritualized so as to allow their minds to bloom. Such a life serves more than work, as artists are often control freaks riven with anxiety and social awkwardness that must be put to rest by the calming waves of routine. Watching Phantom Thread, one might think of the relationship between Alfred and Alma Hitchcock and their many secretaries and actresses, as documented by Donald Spoto’s The Dark Side of Genius.
Anderson introduces Reynolds to us as he undergoes his daily dressing regiment, lingering on the character’s process with a reverence that’s both anthropological and masturbatory. Reynolds pulls his colorful socks over his legs and snips ear and nose hair, erecting the formidable exterior that’s seen by sycophants and associates alike. Breakfast is a prized portion of the day, allowing Reynolds to sketch and collect his thoughts, while serving as a primary stage for his passive aggression, which Day-Lewis physicalizes with a fey and reedy accent that hums with a quivering sing-song intensity. A lover on her way out of the House of Woodcock pleads for Reynolds to notice her, and he responds by scolding the woman for her preference for sweets. When Reynolds later loses control of his emotional thermometer, however, he takes a voracious bite out of a Danish. Such details ground the audience in Reynolds’s oscillations of mood and aspirations toward self-control, allowing us to think we know him, though he remains vibrantly recessive. Such a delicate balance between explicitness and vagueness is central to Anderson’s filmography and pivotal to its roiling psychological undertow.
Phantom Thread continues to refine the austerity that began to seep into Anderson’s films with Punch-Drunk Love. The filmmaker’s characters were once loquacious and given to summarizing themes aloud, but now they speak in coiled rhetoric that compresses years of longing and bitterness into a few poetic syllables, which are delivered by actors in a fashion that emphasizes the alien inadequacy of words. When Reynolds asks a waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps), to dinner, he says nothing apart from the words that are required to put the idea across, while sensually smiling. Anderson emphasizes the silence of the moment, which is erotic, comic, and evocative of the vast distances of generation and culture that exist between the couple. He manages tension with a conductor’s mastery of accumulation, driving us nearly mad over the mystery as to what precisely exists between Reynolds and Alma.
The couple’s first date is a remarkable series of nesting duels that recalls Lancaster’s interrogations of Freddie in The Master. Anderson’s films have grown divisive, in part, for their understanding of relationships as being inescapably rooted in emotional and political power, with courtship suggesting a merging of acquisition and pageantry. Reynolds and Alma engage in coded riddles, and one senses that Alma speaks Reynolds’s language more than he expects, spurring an uncomfortable sense of discovery that disrupts his anal-retentive notion of safety. Phantom Thread is emotionally unmooring because we feel protective over Reynolds and Alma simultaneously; his creative realm is so passionately defined that we become attached to it, yet we know that it drains women in Alma’s vulnerable position.
Reynolds is the unquestioned vessel of power in this relationship. He’s the great man seducing the ingénue, though Alma’s conscious of this stereotypical arrangement and seeks to subvert it. Anderson fashions one of his subtlest, most astonishing set pieces out of Reynolds’s measuring of Alma for a dress: The camera glides along the measuring tape, enjoying her body less than his ability to seize control of the moment by embracing his art. In this moment, Reynolds is every artist who dreams of the women whom fame would net him, yet when he’s alone with a woman, he retreats into his head. This sequence is a sex scene in which Reynolds makes love to himself in front of Alma, luxuriating in his talent and ability to assume her into his tapestry of perfection, in which beauty’s packaged in a process of transcendental and repressive consumption that’s enjoyed by men as well as women.
Tellingly, there are no literal sex scenes in Phantom Thread, a pointed decision that reflects something other than the usual skittishness in American cinema. The film has a tamped-down quality that’s particularly emphasized by the escalating sense of constriction in Reynolds’s townhouse. Anderson’s considerable formal control syncs up with Reynolds’s own authority of mastery. (Phantom Thread’s one misstep is to imply actual sex between Reynolds and Alma with the closing of a bedroom door, which momentarily dispels the tension of euphemism that otherwise so expertly defines the film.)
Reynolds is understood by Anderson and Day-Lewis to exist as a kind of battery who must be drained to an infantile state and recharged into a mighty artiste. This is a man with mommy issues, who needs a woman who can control and hurt him—providing a governed chaos that offers catharses on demand. In the field one day, Alma discovers the key to giving Reynolds what he wants, steering Phantom Thread into the kinky hothouse terrain of Alice in Wonderland or either version of The Beguiled. Yet, even as the film follows Reynolds and Alma down a rabbit hole of perversity, Anderson holds back, emphasizing eroticism indirectly by subliminal association, with symbols—such as a mushroom omelet—that merge Reynolds’s sexualized preoccupation with cleanliness and discipline with a feral strain of the wild that can humble him and tap his deep-seated craving to be owned.
Phantom Thread partially concerns how men mold women to suit their fantasies, ironing out inconvenient strands of personality to arrive at figures who embody living dolls, though it flips that idea on its side to show a woman who does her own molding. We’re in the gothic territory of Henry James and Hitchcock, with a 21-century acknowledgement of female power. Alma’s initiation into the House of Woodcock suggests Rebecca’s journey into Manderley, with Reynolds’s sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), fulfilling the forbidding and menacing functions of a Mrs. Danvers figure. The configuration of actors affirms this impression, as Krieps is a gifted discovery who finds herself working opposite of icons, as Joan Fontaine did in Hitchcock’s Rebecca. Yet Anderson uses Rebecca as a red herring, as Phantom Thread’s surprises often center on its deviations from such a template. Cyril’s a more nuanced creation than Danvers, serving as Reynolds’s manager, caregiver, and twin founts of common sense and sporadic decency. She’s his figurative wife.
In Hitchcock’s films, women don’t possess the power that men presume them to; for all the charges of misogyny that have greeted Hitchcock’s work, he powerfully articulated female suppression. In Anderson’s films, though, women compose a secret matriarchy that coexists within patriarchy, each fueling the other. In Phantom Thread, Reynolds lacks the autonomy that he believes himself to possess, as he’s beholden to a female patron and is reliant on Cyril to the point of subservience. Reynolds, like many men, dreams of powerlessness as an ideal state—as a gateway to coddling his mind for his art, though, of course, he can’t know true powerlessness, which informs his vicarious fantasies with the assurance of safety.
Anderson’s films were once ensemble examinations of family as lively organisms, but over the years the filmmaker has wedded his familial obsessions with a fulsome interiority. Over and over again, Anderson obsessively considers a trap that’s forged by a dysfunctional contrast between self and society, offering protagonists who wish to be alone yet are susceptible to loneliness anyway out of their incurable fealty to the human condition. Certain Anderson films, such as The Master, have an almost primordial hopelessness, reveling in a purifying masculine longing, inflicting the very sort of pain in the audience for which Reynolds feels and yearns.
Yet Phantom Thread offers a release, arriving at a place of qualified peace that cauterizes the emotional wounds of Anderson’s cinema. Alma associatively resurrects not only Reynold’s mother, but the lost mothers of all of Anderson’s films. Merging mother, partner, and lover, Alma is the woman of every Anderson hero’s dreams. With Reynolds, Alma forges a union, brokered by perversity, which might also embody legitimate love.