This essay discusses the end of
Phantom Thread in depth and should be read after seeing the film to avoid spoilers.
Reynolds Woodcock, an esteemed and sybaritic dressmaker, believes himself to be cursed, incapable of being loved the way he wants. He’s unwilling to alter his life to accommodate a partner, as his is an existence besotted by the rigor of routine, rules, and persnickety tics. The quietude he desires has a hermetic feeling; he says an air of quiet death suffuses his house, but doesn’t realize it's because his serenity is forced, unnatural.
As portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis, Reynolds is a fastidious man, one whose attire is never less than immaculate, whose choice and use of words is trenchant and unsparing. Reynolds’s assiduous attention to details, and his utter devotion to his craft, have brought him illustrious customers and a certain amount of influence. But such self-allegiance, such professional fidelity, leaves one calloused, sealed-off and impermeable. He spends more time and devotes more attention to his morning routine—face shaved, tendrils of gray hair brushed back, socks snug and shoes pristine—than he does his partner, whom he no longer loves, and dismisses after an unsatisfactory breakfast of “sludgy” pastries. As my Slant colleague Chuck Bowen notes
, Anderson lingers on the minutiae of the routine with “a reverence that's both anthropological and masturbatory.”
Into his life saunters Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress at a small seaside restaurant. She bumps into a table, which catches Reynolds’s eye. With a sly grin and the sun glinting behind him he orders a plethora of food, a habit reflective of his manic phases, in which he becomes indulgent and vulnerable, capable of eating copiously and allowing someone into his oft-closed heart. Otherwise, he seems to live only on tea and an unrelenting fervor for his work. The camera pushes slowly in; it’s always moving, gently panning, searching. Reynolds’s articulation is exact, his demeanor exacting. He establishes emotional dominance over Alma immediately by taking away her notepad and making her remember the order. She does, and he asks her out to dinner. She accepts.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread is an achingly beauteous and painful portrait of a complicated, codependent relationship, in which love is a necessary poison, the antidote to which is, literally, more poison. Reynolds’s manipulation of Alma, and her oscillating attempts to appease and alter him, to be the partner he demands and to make him the partner she wants, are not mendacious or secretive, but open. Theirs is an honest toxic relationship, one that actually works for them (probably to the chagrin of any therapists who watch it). They have moments of affability, ambling hand-in-hand along the sinuous shorelines, walking along the tops of the cliffs. “Whatever you do,” she intones, “do it carefully.” Brumes of mist dance over the ocean. The wind throws around Reynolds’s hair, Alma’s dress. Accompanying their romantic traipses is Jonny Greenwood’s pervasive score, seasick swoony, as if it drifted into the House of Woodcock. But mostly, the relationship, and the film, are both disturbingly romantic and notably sexless; there’s some brief kissing, but nothing carnal occurs on screen, nor is anything salacious insinuated. The intimacy and fervor of their love is most obvious after Alma puts poison mushroom shavings into Reynolds’s tea, rendering him frail and pathetic so that he must now rely on her. Jaundiced, lying in a pool of sweat, he finally gives himself to her. He has to. Illness is their aphrodisiac, intellectual conflict their sex. Watching Reynolds burn up in bed brings to mind a James Salter quote: “Love, that furnace into which everything is dropped.”
From his sickly mind Reynolds conjures surreal images; his mother, who haunts him (an Anderson motif), appears like a specter in the shadows of the room. In Alma, he finds someone to care for him. She remains by his side, sending away the doctor, his sister, anyone who tries to help. In his time of nearly dying, Alma becomes the dominant partner. She gives life back to him.
When the relationship seems to be finally reaching its end, embittered and eroded, Alma again turns to the mushrooms, loading Reynolds’s omelet with fat chunks. He cuts in, twirls the noxious toadstool about, eyeing it carefully, sagaciously. After a long pregnant moment he looks at her and slowly bites in, knowing what will happen. “You will live,” she comforts him. “I will take care of you.” He swallows, and he smiles. He wants to need her. Acknowledging their love, they ascend to the bedroom to begin again.
Since 2002, Anderson’s characters are often ideas manifest as anthropomorphic entities rather than actual people. Think of Day-Lewis’s barn-burning performance as Daniel Plainview, a personification of unbridled capitalism who seemingly has crude oil coursing his veins, in There Will Be Blood, or Joaquin Phoenix’s erupting id Freddie Quell in The Master. Even Punch-Drunk Love, the director’s Altman-inspired mutation of a romcom, is about a bundle of quirks and eccentricities (played with affable volatility by Adam Sandler) that in no way resembles a human being. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but the surreal nature of such characters keeps the viewer at a distance, and turns a film into an intellectual endeavor. The flawed, yearning, damaged humans in Phantom Thread are a departure for Anderson. Though they don’t act or talk like real people (the film adheres to a weird but consistent internal logic), Reynolds and Alma are the most human characters of Anderson’s career because they have palpable feelings, flaws to overcome or accept. They affect each other. Anderson is sometimes hindered by his penchant for grandiose WTF moments (“I drink your milkshake!”), which, while meme-worthy, work in opposition the film’s trajectory and tone. Here, he has a touch as light as gossamer.
The self-destructive and selfish tendencies of his other characters remain, but for the first time these are souls worth caring about instead of just watching destroy themselves. The film is empathetic without veering towards saccharine, decadently sad and tinctured with obsession, toxicity, and reconciliation. In tone and theme it harkens back to a distinct literary cadre, the gothic romance, which now feels of another world rather than another era. Anderson channels the ghostly aura of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (though not so much Hitchcock’s adaption, by his own admission), the adoration for style and punctilious details of Madame Bovary, the torturous, spiteful marriage of Heathcliff and Catherine in Wuthering Heights. If Jane Eyre is afflicted with congenital madness and locked away in Moor House, then Reynolds is afflicted with congenital dickishness and locks himself in the House of Woodcock.
Anderson is a resolutely stylish filmmaker, and here, in a film about a man whose vocation is style, he finds, for perhaps the first time, beauty in restraint. While no Director of Photography is credited, Anderson purportedly took on duties himself, overseeing a coterie of grips and gaffers. The sky has the texture and haze of sunlight filtered through a white garment, the grain giving the illusion of ripples in the air. White streamers of light pour through windows, casting a halo around Alma; engirdled by light and bedecked with an ornate garnet dress, Alma has the air of an angel—an angel of death, according to an irate Reynolds. Reynolds and Alma are products engendered by their surroundings, and the world, it seems, has been hewn and sewn by a great seamstress. Showing off one of Reynolds’s dresses, Alma dances with Sylph-like grace through the house, before an audience, as Reynolds watches through a peephole. If dreams sometimes represent repressed desires, then the dreamy atmosphere of Phantom Thread is permeated by them. Unspoken and unwanted urges, misunderstood needs—they imbue the film like a fine mist.
Love is, at its essence, an ineffable connection, a sensation of inexplicable, unexplainable attraction and desire, a series of moments strung together to form a sinuous narrative. It requires compromise and sacrifice and malleability to remain sustainable. Alma permeates Reynolds’s heart and Home, leaving her fingerprints on the fog. She gives every piece of herself over to the mercurial Reynolds; he tries to rearrange them to construct the partner he wants, turn her into a paradigm of acquiescence and domesticity. A man so complicated, so broken, may want a simple, unalloyed partner, use her like a corporeal piece of decorum, but what he needs, Anderson implies, may be someone who instigates him—someone who challenges his ideas and impetus. Maybe he needs someone to hurt him and heal him. She knows him, sees down deep to those indescribable intricacies that fundamentally define him, and she changes him. A relationship so labile, comprising manic highs and embittered lows, is begotten by a feverish love that knows little tranquility. Passions run high, whether lovingly or spitefully. Reynolds embraces the poison; he embraces love.
Reynolds lives for his craft; for Alma, loving Reynolds is an endeavor not unlike designing a bespoke dress is to Reynolds. Love is a craft, an emotional duel. As voluptuous and alluring as its aesthetics are, Phantom Thread’s great daring stems from its willingness to depict a purportedly toxic relationship, one rife with micro-aggressions and moments of emotional warfare, as viable, loving, even salutary. For Reynolds and Alma, instability is the norm; the highs seem to justify the lows, and maybe even lace the lows with a kind of appeal, a necessary point in an unending romantic cycle. Maybe the highs and lows are not separable—maybe the volatility is part of the attraction. Reynolds asks, vexed and confrontational, if Alma has been sent to ruin his entire life. It’s almost as if Reynolds needs to have his current life ruined so he can start a new one, the way the pair enliven their relationship with poison and sickness. A fever kills the virus. The masturbatory routine of the opening scene has been eschewed and replaced with a shared one. From the ashes of love’s furnace comes new life.