‘Phantom Thread’: Exploring the Different Sides of Control, Obsession and Art

In Phantom Thread, the viewer is both inside the world Paul Thomas Anderson has created and outside it.

A still from <em>Phantom Thread</em>.

A still from Phantom Thread.

Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a demanding man. Demanding is, in fact, too mild a word for him. Reynolds is a man of obsessive routine and discipline, a workaholic who considers others – and even the sounds their mundane activities make, such as nibbling at bread, pouring coffee, initiating a conversation – distracting. Reynolds has no patience or time for people, except for his dead mother. He reserves his joy, his innocence, his entire sense of being, for his work: designing dresses. Reynolds, the protagonist of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, is running a race with himself with blinders on.

Anderson excels in examining the duality of his characters: what consumes them is what makes them, and what makes them is what destroys them. Reynolds himself is a curious amalgamation of two Anderson’s characters: Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis) from There Will Be Blood, a hardened oil baron obsessed with work; and Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) from The Master, an unhinged Second World War veteran finding solace in a cult. Like them, Reynolds too hides his psychiatric condition in plain sight, making eccentricity a routine, impatience a lifestyle. The question with these characters is not why they’re like this, but what they’ll do when they’re like this – unpredictable men who, trying hard to inch towards the best versions of themselves, have drifted far away from the world.

In Phantom Thread, Anderson reveals Reynolds’s obsessions early. Every morning, more than a dozen of his assistants, quiet old women, assemble at his house for a long day at work, meticulously turning his brushstrokes into dresses of impeccable quality to be worn by the elite. When the dress is ready and worn, Reynolds analyses and admires the end result — on a good day, he allows himself a smile.

If Reynolds is single-minded then so is the camera, gliding up and down the flights of stairs, following his assistants as they start their work, hanging on to every word of their master, like members of a cult. There’s a silken quality to these scenes – the slow manner in which the dress is laid out, the small final embellishments (a fold here, a fold there) making the exemplary perfect, the smooth sharp movements of Reynolds – that imbues this world with an immersive, hypnotic quality.

But this viewing experience is dichotomous, too. We’re often both inside this world and outside of it. In an early scene, when Reynolds is talking to his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) about seeing his dead mother and how he finds the idea of the “dead watching over the living comforting”, she, the constant witness to his whims, suggests he take a break. In the next scene, we see Reynolds drive to the countryside, the camera mounted on the car’s bonnet, the world outside bumping, swerving, rapidly receding, almost always on the edge, reflecting the dreamy dizzy state Reynolds perpetually inhabits. This is one of the few instances where he is truly alone, allowing us to see him for who he is, to see what he cannot.

The film finds its moral centre when Reynolds finds Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress in a countryside restaurant. She’s attracted to him, loves his work and, like many, is in awe of him. She interprets these mélange of emotions as love. But in Alma, Reynolds sees less of a person and more of a muse, someone who can be summoned at will to try his designs, whose worth is less than the dresses she wears. History is rife with stories of men who have used – and abused – women to further their artistic goals. Alfred Hitchcock is a well-known example, A few days ago, when Uma Thurman recounted her unpleasant experiences of shooting Kill Bill, that last got a new a name: Quentin Tarantino. But Phantom Thread is not an endorsement of toxic masculinity because Anderson, after introducing Alma, keeps switching perspectives, following his own leads earlier in the film. We often see Reynolds and his world through Alma’s point of view, and he seems ridiculous and comical, a joker devoid of humour.

Like There Will Be Blood and The Master, Phantom Thread is about control and obsession – about not just controlling but wanting to be controlled, because to be controlled, in Anderson’s view, is to be loved. Phantom Thread is, among other things, about the inability to love and feel vulnerable, and the different facades that must be built and sustained to hide that shame.

Day-Lewis is the film’s centrepiece, waxing and waning, alternating between periods of a normal healthy life and lying frail in bed, “like a child”, recovering from eating poisonous mushrooms. But even otherwise, his portrayal of a healthy (and largely uni-dimensional) Reynolds is always intriguing because Day-Lewis, in the fleetest of moments, shows traces of someone he’s trying to protect; there are scenes where his face softens and he squeezes out a smile, or when he raises his voice and diminishes his hesitancy. But the film’s shining light is Alma, who is perpetually trying to find something in nothing. Krieps’s Alma is a shifting and unending receptacle, always moulding herself for some love, attention and respect. Unlike Day-Lewis’s, it’s a role that receives and registers, and Krieps brings to her performance puzzlement, passivity, defiance and grace.

Phantom Thread is also a slight nod – in a fashion that’s empathetic, not judgmental – to the capriciousness of artists, and the ways in which their art corrodes and consumes them. “He is the most demanding man. It must be difficult to be with him,” a character tells Alma in the film’s first scene. These lines are quasi-funny because they’re applicable to not just Reynolds but also the man portraying him, Day-Lewis, an actor known for obsessively preparing for his roles, bringing to his work, much like Reynolds, a singular dedication and devotion that is both admirable and baffling. In June 2017, Day-Lewis, the only actor to have won three Academy Awards, announced his retirement from acting. Even by Day-Lewis’s eccentric choices, this news was surprising. The actor gave no reason.

But one scene in Phantom Thread is a remarkable approximation of the circumstances that led Day-Lewis to quit acting for stage. In 1989, while performing the play Hamlet in London, Day-Lewis saw, in a scene where Hamlet’s father’s ghost appears before him, his own father’s ghost, explaining years later that he “had a very vivid, almost hallucinatory moment” in which he was “engaged in a dialogue” with his father. Day-Lewis collapsed, began sobbing, left the stage and was replaced by a different actor. He never returned to stage.

In Phantom Thread, Reynolds sees the ghost of his mother, dressed in a wedding gown he had made for her when he was 16, and engages in a “vivid, almost hallucinatory” exchange with her. It’s an unforgettable scene – brimming with wonder, innocence, beauty and horror – made all the more poignant by the actor’s history. What’s more, Day-Lewis has often spoken about the intricate relationship between work and play. “The important thing is it’s a game,” he had once said about acting in a 2003 interview. “And that’s what people misunderstand. It’s a game, a very elaborate one.” In another scene of Phantom Thread, frustrated by Reynolds’ callousness, Alma shouts, “All your rules and your clothes and all this money and everything is a game.” Phantom Thread is an unsettling and wonderful testament to the bonds between art and life, examining how one can seize and overwhelm the other.

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