Cinema history is overstuffed with stories about difficult geniuses, both real and imagined, and the women who love them. Phantom Thread feels like an especially timely riposte to the argument that their output is worth all of the hell they put their companions through – or at the very least, that it doesn’t demand to be called out. Paul Thomas Anderson’s career-long vivisection of toxic masculinity continues with this story of a celebrated dressmaker who gets more than he bargains for when a dedicated but feisty waitress disrupts his fastidious creativity, and eventually, his entire life. At the same time an oddly rhapsodic portrait of two deeply imperfect people who just might be perfect for one another, Phantom Thread offers a subversive – possibly corrosive – take on the foundations of successful relationships that marks an exciting new chapter in the auteur’s distinguished, always provocative body of work.
Daniel Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a renowned English dressmaker and self-proclaimed “confirmed bachelor” with a punctilious disposition and a cycle of liaisons with beautiful young women that he eventually enlists his sister Cyril (Leslie Manville) to end. During a sabbatical to his family’s countryside estate, Reynolds meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress he’s immediately drawn to, and they begin a delicate but passionate courtship. Becoming his muse, Alma inspires Reynolds’ work, models his dresses and assumes a place beside Cyril as his champion, defender, and caregiver – much to Cyril’s surprise, and muted delight. But as Reynolds’ rigorous schedule and painstaking methods threaten to oust her from his good graces, Alma is forced to choose whether to fall in line with all of the other women he’s loved briefly and discarded, or impose her will and become an active participant in a type of relationship in his life that has always demanded passive obedience – but also inevitably failed as a result.
Audiences will no doubt be divided by Anderson’s depiction of Reynolds and Alma’s relationship, which feels alternately – if equally – poisonous and persuasive, though arguably more as a byproduct of the writer-director’s all-consuming affection for his characters than a sense of romantic advocacy. But as a love story, Phantom Thread argues that toxicity within a relationship does not preclude functionality, and gives both characters an equal agency that dimensionalizes and perhaps elevates what they do with (and to) one another above easy descriptions of emotional abuse. Unquestionably, the defining characteristic of their dynamic is a power struggle, a quest for control; but it’s also precisely that method of communication, that battle of wills, that draws Reynolds and Alma to one another, gives them purpose as individuals, and imbues their union with emotional substance.
Reynolds is the type of genius who knows he is one, and his value system and predilections have not only been validated by the world but reinforced by Cyril, who has never married and devotes herself completely to protecting his fussy routines. Noise, bad news, even unexpected questions supposedly inhibit his creativity, and he relies upon Cyril to obey his commands and eliminate the distracting minutiae of ordinary daily interactions that it has become his privilege never to have to deal with. Theirs is its own sort of dysfunctional relationship, but what’s fascinating and unique about Anderson’s storytelling is that Cyril’s reaction to Alma begins with dismissal, and quietly evolves as she realizes that the young woman’s disruption to his life – to theirs, in fact – not only provides a welcome respite from its actually helps empower her. She’d settled into a role as his translator, shield, enforcer, but watching Alma, she begins to recognize her own power, and more importantly, to challenge his.
Alma, meanwhile, is delightful, a sort of empty vessel in so many ways at the outset of the film – clever, astute, patient – but as the story progresses, she doesn’t merely provide a gateway into his world but opens a window into why she loves him (or anyone could love anyone) enough to commit to his persnickety demands. Specifically, what begins as a perhaps girlish interest in his exquisite clothing and superficial, urbane charms evolves into something much more sophisticated, prompting her personal growth and eventually, determination to participate equally in a dynamic in which he has typically relegated his companions as subordinates, or even supplicants. Her choices are not acts of desperation, but self-actualization, from petty bickering to larger acts of subterfuge and manipulation that insist she be recognized and respected – she’s reclaiming her time, so to speak, except she wants it for both of them, even if it must be wrested away from him in order to do so.
Anderson has characterized writing the story as more of a living collaborative process between himself and Day-Lewis, but it feels singular to him, from its subject matter to its wry, mischievous tone. Still, the filmmaker continues to evolve in unexpected and exciting ways: the Paul Thomas Anderson responsible for the florid cinematography of Boogie Nights and Magnolia feels like a different person than the one whose execution of Phantom Thread operates like a study in pure, elegant functionality. It’s not that he lacks the skill to pull off the dizzying visuals of his previous work – quite the opposite; rather, his growth is in recognizing that he needn’t over-exert to communicate the same experience, and the same emotion, as in the past. Consequently, his direction of the conversations between Reynolds, Alma and Cyril seem outwardly businesslike – simple shot-reverse shot exchanges – but they’re sandwiched inside subtle, sumptuously-lit establishing images, and framed by a virtuoso sense of timing, and equally important, location that provide, and amplify, their emotional weight.
Additionally, Anderson’s skill remains unparalleled in stretching the duration and rhythms of single scenes in an overall whole, such as when an early dress fitting for Alma becomes an act of seduction, but also, assessment by, first, Reynolds, and afterward, an intrusive but snarkily businesslike Cyril. But as a whole, the film’s cohesion, its careful build to an unanticipated compromise that, again, is a rejoinder to the notion that it’s okay for him to be an impatient asshole simply because he is a superlative dressmaker, and makes a startlingly convincing case that the dysfunctional mechanics of their interactions ultimately work in service of a more perfect machine – the longevity of their relationship. Unlike, say, The Master's Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd, who possess the desire to cooperate but lack the intellectual and emotional aptitude to find a middle ground, Alma learns Reynolds’ communication methods, dismantles them, and forces him to deal with her on her level – and he respects her, if exasperatingly, for it.
And of course this is the case in real life – plenty of romances are volatile, hurtful, mutually destructive experiences for all involved, circumventing, undermining, even devastating our notions of communication, honesty, and mutual respect, and yet somehow enduring anyway. But even in a space dominated by manipulation, the most masterful demonstration of “control” in Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is the one exerted by the filmmaker himself, taking the audience on a journey that starts as a showcase for a great talent (and by extension, a snapshot of a marginalized art form), develops into a love story, and eventually evolves into a dialectic between two personalities destined to be together but only after coming to an accord, or possibly a reckoning, that suits both of their needs.
In that last regard, it feels like an especially poetic encapsulation of our times, or maybe just a bracing splash of honesty in the face of conventional cinematic romance. But ultimately, Phantom Thread succeeds not because it makes you love the characters, but because it clarifies and enables you to understand why they love one another. Making that distinction in a world that often confuses depiction and endorsement is often extraordinarily difficult, but it underscores a greater and more relatable truth – namely, that relationships of any sort are never easy, but it takes a lot of work to build one that is truly special.