The Twisted Love Story of Phantom Thread

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Phantom Thread (2017)

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

An exploration into the twisted and dark trials within the need to love and be loved is what you’ll find in the suffocatingly beautiful, Phantom thread. Director Paul Thomas Anderson finds his love story within the singular clarity of eccentric fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock’s world. His life is numbly balanced by routine and constant work, aided only by his equally driven sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville).  When he invites Alma (Vicky Krieps) into his life, for what he believed would be another loveless tryst with a muse, she turns his world on its ear, matching wits and trading tender moments for cold as they learn how to love and be loved with one another.

Reynolds (Daniel Day-Lewis) doesn’t love, he covets, he covets his tranquil oppression he suffocates the house with, his routine, and his breakfasts. He also covets women; he uses them as a subject for his work. We get the impression, Cyril, is the one who nurtured her brother’s genius; she is the foundation of his status and success. She’s the business end of her brother, the one who politely suggests his muses leave the house when their time is up. But, she is not full of frigid wilt, there is a certain tenderness between her and Reynolds, however, their private lives seem almost exclusively separate, their cups of coffee in the back booth of their favorite haunt is as intimate as it gets.

There is a delicate charm hovering in the air when the fashionable eccentric meets Alma, the plainly dressed, and blushing, beautiful waitress in a little country inn. Reynolds is immediately smitten with her, and the massive breakfast he orders suggests he is replenishing before beginning another cycle with another muse.

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It’s interesting how Anderson focuses so heavily on his subjects. His use of close-ups and long shots feel like we’re leaning in to hear each character’s secrets. This style lends itself to the performances of Day-Lewis, Krieps, and Manville, while Anderson’s camera holds on them patiently waiting for their emotional tells, of which nearly the entire drama of the film plays out in. Such instances occur when Reynolds invites Alma to his country home after their first dinner, and before long he is fitting her for a dress, and that’s not a poor euphemism for sex. Alma seems bewildered by how objectifying Reynolds is, but also has a glint of curiosity in her eyes. She knows there is something special about him, and it’s more interesting than the little country inn. For his part Reynolds is warm and charming, there is no ill-intent in his actions; he admires Alma as his subject.

Soon Alma begins to understand her part in Reynolds’ world. It starts with a contentious breakfast (so much of Reynolds’ life revolves around breakfast). The petulant artist complains of the noise she makes buttering her toast, and her very movements. Alma believes he is being petty, still, Cyril suggests she eat breakfast earlier or in her room in the future.

From there begins the beautifully maddening push-pull drama of Reynolds’ and Alma’s relationship. Alma enjoys testing and prodding Reynolds’ to understand his limits and understand how one is to love him and be loved. She succeeds when she convinces Reynolds to take his dress back from a drunken heiress, this act evokes the first truly passionate moment between them. But his passion for her always seems finite, so she must come up with more clever ways of disarming him and understanding how to love him, she takes this to a seemingly impossible extreme, where he gladly follows.

If this was Daniel Day-Lewis’ last film, as he says it is, I doubt there could be any finer farewell than Phantom Thread. His layered performance is as relatable as it is confounding and it’s equaled by three other masters at the top of their game in Krieps, Manville and Anderson. It’s a deep and sorted look at love gifted with grace among rigidity of habit and obsession.

-James Merolla

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