Like all Paul Thomas Anderson films, “Phantom Thread” is a study of a family and the love its members share.
At the center of the film, which was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, lies the relationship between Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a couture dressmaker in 1950s London, and his muse, Alma (Vicky Krieps). All about them flits the bombast that marks nearly every Anderson film — the hysterical realism of character-specific accessories, an intentionally unsteady camera, and the unpredictable beauty of a Jonny Greenwood soundtrack.
Anderson is up to the same project as his two masterpieces “Magnolia” and “There Will Be Blood”: the study of family, specifically the phenomenon of gift — true gift, dispensed only with the contingency that all love is an exercise in complementarity. In Anderson movies, real love is a circular motion where giving is receiving and receiving is allowing the fruits of gift to return back into the self.
In “Phantom Thread,” Anderson draws the audience close to Reynolds, inside his eyes, inside his ears. We follow him through his morning routine, where every crumpet’s crunch crumples his entire day. We learn of his routines, and how everything that is not dress designing dissatisfies him.
Reynolds has a right to brood about everyday life. Although he loves designing dresses, the drudgery of his customers and bills irks him. His sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) can handle the bills, but Reynolds must engage the customers — aging husks of aristocrats, concerned only with appearances, appearances, appearances. Reynolds truly loves his work — the way an artist obsesses over his craft — so he soldiers through his frustrations. His is an ordered life, with few surprises.
Reynolds picks her up in a seaside village, intending to keep her as a dress model, but she quickly becomes his lover, overtaking Cyril and the memory of his mother as Reynold’s sole female complement. When he attempts to rebel against Alma’s care, (spoiler alert) she poisons his food with mushrooms, reducing him to a weak and needy old man.
By the end of the movie, Reynolds and Alma have developed a mutually aggressive — and yet mutually tender — relationship, each caring for the other by dampening the other’s pride. Reynolds uses his acidic wit. Alma employs deadly fungi.
In its advertisements, the movie was billed as Daniel Day-Lewis’ retirement act, but really, it’s about the vital importance of women in the world. For perhaps more than men, women recognize the whole human person, because they see persons with their hearts. It’s no coincidence that Alma’s name puns on the Latin word for “nourishing.”
Alma understand Reynolds in a way he could never understand himself alone. She sees him with all of his greatness and limitations, but instead of standing in cold judgement, she tries to help him become a fuller artist. As her name indicates, Alma’s existence is marked from the outset by the principle of help: a help which (once Reynolds accepts it) is not one-sided but mutual.
Alma complements Reynolds, just as Reynolds complements Alma; all men and women are complementary. Alma’s womanhood expresses the “human” as much as Reynold’s manhood does, but in a different and complementary way. But through that holistic insight which is so much a part of her womanhood, Alma enriches Reynold’s understanding of himself and helps to make his relations with others — especially his sister — more honest and authentic.
Ideally, at least.
While Alma and Reynolds agree that their relationship operates under the principle of help, their actions seem to disagree. There’s something mutually masochistic about the preparation and indulgence in poisoned mushrooms. It speaks not so much to the pun on Alma’s name, but to the equally important innuendo in Reynold’s surname: Woodcock.
Because if not in love, the film’s resolution hedges into love’s near-image parody — lust. And maybe that’s fitting. The phrase “phantom thread” refers to the symptoms of a factory worker who has sewn one too many dresses. Even when not working, the hands involuntarily move, thinking they’re doing something they’re not.