Much like the lavish and regally constructed dresses that the renowned central character makes throughout Phantom Thread: Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest feature is a nimble and cunningly made drama that has many surprises woven within its fabric. Set in 1950s London amid the bustling couture world: Phantom Thread depicts the tempestuous relationship between a celebrated society dressmaker- Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his newly appointed muse- Alma Elson (a warm and brash Vicky Krieps).
Perhaps more than the director himself, whose films draw an intense devout fervency from enthusiastic cinephiles: Phantom Thread has a massive tidal wave of curiosity due to it featuring the last ever performance from the illustrious English actor- Daniel Day-Lewis.
With this in mind, it’s hard not to read Day-Lewis’ solemn last bow as a post-modern critique of the actor’s persona. In a perfect melding of actor and character: Reynold Woodcock’s fiendishly fussy habits and manner can be equally ascribed to the actor whose craft is painstakingly regimented. There are many scenes dedicated to Reynold’s morning routine in which even the most minute sound and whisper of confrontation sends the designer into a flustered state of annoyance and creative idleness.
The series of scenes can be interpreted as a metaphor for acting: Woodcock’s prefered approach of stony silences and calmness match the complete immersion of method acting. Whereas, Alma’s intuitive everyday actions represent the moment to moment discovery of a character through life’s various eccentricities.
Phantom Thread is also a remarkable white gothic that is bathed in loss and innocence. If the essence of a gothic story is in its portrait of a decaying and forlorn house that is a stand-in for the protagonist’s soul, then Thread is steadfast in subverting this usual conception of the genre. In stark contrast to large and looming ecclesiastical buildings with flickers of shadows emerging from candlelight: Reynolds’ luxury fashion house looks like a pristine and elaborate doll’s house with white walls that are decayed by the bright beams of the morning sun.
Anderson’s pictures have always portrayed fascinating relationships, and Phantom Thread reconfigures the way in which we perceive the artist and muse relationship. Usually, the creative person devours their source of inspiration much like the big bad wolf in Little Red Riding Hood. However, Phantom Thread is an illustration of the wolf being tamed by the muse. Alma loves Reynolds but poisons him at random intervals to make him vulnerable so that she can take of him and lower his defensive side.
The relationship takes on Gothic resonance in a scene when Reynolds in an intensely feverish state sees a ghost of his mother. She is dressed in white and has a heavenly glow that fills the room. Earlier in the picture, Reynolds says that he has always found the idea of the dead watching over their loved ones as a comforting as opposed to a horrifying notion. He sees her while Alma is taking care of him in the aftermath of a poisoned incident.
Alma represents a surrogate mother figure, and their relationship is, in essence, a soothing of a little boy who has never stopped playing with his dolls and their clothes. Accentuated by Jonny Greenwood’s masterfully elegant symphonic score: the passing of the torch scene between Reynolds’ idealised and metaphorical mother is vital in further painting this portrait of a white gothic picture that soulfully laments.
Despite all this, Phantom Thread’s Achilles heel comes in the character of Cyril Woodcock (Lesley Manville). The film never truly conveys that her character and Reynolds are siblings. Sure, it is stated a few times, but one never feels it from the emotional distance Cyril has with Reynolds. She also has no perspective let alone a semblance of a relationship with her mother. And despite Manville’s stirringly dry and sharp performance, it does not give the character any sense of internal life. Worse yet, the screenplay relegates her most significant revelatory moments to offscreen purgatory.
Good review. I think you are quite right to view this film as a Gothic romance,