“Eros enters him like an invader, taking over and reorganizing, one by one, the institutions of a conquered country.”
– C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
“Is this my house, or has somebody dropped me on foreign soil, behind enemy lines? I’m surrounded on all sides… Where is your gun? Show me your gun.”
– Reynolds Woodcock, Phantom Thread
Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the very best American filmmakers working today, and quite possibly the most interesting. His mastery of the craft is nearly unparalleled, placing him on that elusive, immortal plane where the likes of the Coen brothers, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg currently reside. Yet what sets him apart, even among such esteemed company, is how perplexingly eclectic he is. Perhaps there’s a carefully coordinated mania that unites his early Southern California-set ensembles, Boogie Nights and Magnolia, but from Punch-Drunk Love on he has been impossible to box in, careening from the harsh grandeur of There Will Be Blood to the elliptical intimacy of The Master to the psychedelic befuddlement of Inherent Vice. His films are often initially incomprehensible or at least bewilderingly strange, teetering as they do between the darkly humorous and the violently poignant. The average moviegoer’s first response upon encountering strangeness on the silver screen is to try and “figure it out,” or else throw up their hands in consternation and take their business elsewhere, but Anderson resists “figuring out,” because he is not a particularly heady artist, almost always (and most successfully) working at the emotional, intuitive level, rather than the intellectual or cerebral. No matter how complicated or symbolic it may appear, everything in a Paul Thomas Anderson film is an inroad to the most basic needs at the heart of the human condition: to love and be loved, to not be alone. His films, though awash with Freudian symbols and confused erotic intrigues, are never solely or even primarily about sex: they are about the joys of union with another person and the frustration that results when it is denied or destroyed. Broken families and unfulfilled romantic desires are only the tip of an iceberg floating aimlessly in a roiling existential sea: the most pervasive feeling in Anderson’s oeuvre is a uniquely plaintive sense of displacement and loneliness, a shapeless longing for connection, haunted by a keenly felt nostalgia (as they call it in the psychiatric profession).
Between the director’s varied output and the cryptic nature of the trailers, I approached Phantom Thread with few expectations, but even those I had were upended. Anderson’s last three films – There Will Be Blood in 2007, The Master in 2012, and Inherent Vice in 2014 – have all been exquisitely brutal and increasingly fragmentary excavations of the depths of human sorrow. However, as darkly bizarre as it occasionally gets, his latest effort is not, ultimately, a tragedy. In fact, in its own oddly sweet way, it is his most comedic film – both in the sense that it is quite funny, even silly, and in the sense that it concludes in marriage rather than death, union rather than bereavement. When the credits rolled after its dizzying final passages, I had a huge, goofy grin stuck to my face, and I could neither explain why nor make it go away. Indeed, on my three subsequent viewings, I’ve found it to be his most enchanting and purely enjoyable film; while I have to put quite a bit of time between viewings of There Will Be Blood and The Master, I’ve been tempted more than once, exiting the theater after Phantom Thread, to simply turn around and watch it again.
Set in lushly rendered 1950s London and accompanied by Jonny Greenwood’s beguiling score, Phantom Thread revolves around dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) – a talented couturier, revered by his clients, though we soon gather that his obsessive dedication to his work makes him generally insufferable to be around. “I simply cannot begin my day with a confrontation,” he peevishly snaps at an ignored lover when she tries to get his attention over breakfast. While Reynolds is perpetually preoccupied with his art, his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) sees to more practical matters – keeping the House of Woodcock running smoothly, for example, and politely shooing away her brother’s girlfriends when he tires of them, for another. “His routine,” she says, “is best not disturbed.” However, retiring to the country for a few days, Reynolds meets a waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps), invites her to dinner, brings her home, and promptly takes her measurements. The two immediately seem fascinated with each other. “I feel as if I’ve been looking for you for a very long time,” he says. “You found me,” she replies. Upon accompanying Reynolds back to London, though, the outwardly compliant but strong-willed Alma, not content to simply be the latest in a long line of disposable lovers, slowly disrupts the Woodcock siblings’ carefully ordered codependence. Struggles for power ensue with varying degrees of politeness, the three characters reveal unsuspected depths of idiosyncrasy and verbal wit, and as in a true Shakespearean comedy, love wins the day – after a fashion, and by wholly unexpected means.
As with many of Anderson’s films, it’s difficult at first to grasp what Phantom Thread is communicating. Considered from one angle, it seems to be nothing more than a sharply observed psychological portrait of some very strange human behavior. From another, it’s a study of the power dynamics between an artist and a muse, and the way an obsession with one’s craft affects one’s relationships with other people. It is an homage to classic cinema, especially recalling Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Lean’s The Passionate Friends; it is a gothic romance about the lengths we will go to for love; it is an exploration of the compromises necessary to make a marriage work. One enlightening approach is to compare the film with the director’s previous works, from which it takes, revises, and inverts many recurring elements. Like Punch-Drunk Love, it is an unconventional romantic comedy chronicling the love between a childish man and a maternally longsuffering woman. Like There Will Be Blood, the last collaboration between Anderson and Day-Lewis, it is a period piece about a domineering, larger-than-life figure whose inhumanly single-minded passion pushes away those who try to love him. Yet there is one entry in the director’s filmography that, I think, makes for a particularly instructive conversation partner with Phantom Thread.
The Master, Anderson’s best film, is also set in the 1950s. It begins in postwar America, but concludes in Britain, where Phantom Thread takes place. It is rife with overtones of Freudian psychology. Most tellingly, it is, at its core, a three-character piece, as a relationship between two people is disrupted by the entrance of a third. In The Master, the triptych consists of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a disturbed sailor and veteran of the Second World War, a mysterious and charismatic cult leader named Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and his calmly controlling wife, Peggy (Amy Adams). Like Phantom Thread, but moreso, The Master is profoundly ambiguous, and the triangular dynamic at its core invites any number of readings; the relationship between Freddie and Lancaster variously suggests that between a father and a son, a man and a lover, a teacher and a pupil, a commander and a soldier – but it cannot be reduced to any single one of these things. In the end, The Master is about the agony of separation in all its most intimate forms: not just from a lover or friend, or from a belief system or family, but even within the soul of a single individual, a split that reverberates out through their entire existence. Here we find a key contrast, for Phantom Thread is about the difficulty and beauty of unification, and the myriad ways individuals can be stitched together. The two films are mirror images of each other. One might even say they tell the same story, first as a tragedy, then as a comedy, though of course with Anderson, the line between the two is very blurry.
At first glance, the three leads of Phantom Thread don’t easily correspond to those of The Master, but upon a closer look, one finds the same triangle underlying both films. Predictably enough, my interpretation is a rather classical one. In Freudian terms, we have the id, ego, and superego; in Platonic terms, the appetite, spirit, and intellect, or as Lewis would phrase it in The Abolition of Man, the belly, chest, and head. Freddie Quell, who is first introduced trying to have sex with a sand sculpture of a woman, is an incarnation of the appetite or id – unruly and childish, at once annoyingly raucous and deeply pitiable. Peggy Dodd is the intellect or superego, benevolent but coolly detached and unbendingly firm, concerned with defending the integrity of her husband’s cult at all costs, which means disciplining Freddie or excising him entirely. Lancaster, the ego or spirit – he is referred to as a “mystic” – struggles to mediate between the two extremes, invigorated and inspired by the passionate Freddie, but striving, at the behest of the rational Peggy, to control and maintain him. When he fails to do so, Freddie must be cast out, to the pain of all involved.
Although Reynolds’ fastidious exterior bears little resemblance to Freddie’s alcohol-addled, licentious mental state, he also represents the id or appetitive part of the soul – the stomach, though his surname might suggest a different, similarly passion-driven member. From beginning to end, he is constantly associated with hunger; upon first meeting Alma, he orders a comically massive breakfast, and she immediately nicknames him “the hungry boy.” Cyril, commenting on Alma’s “ideal shape,” remarks that her brother “likes a little belly.” Beyond his literal hunger, the Woodcock siblings’ routine suggests that Reynolds goes through life devouring, sucking one muse dry of inspiration, discarding her, and moving on to the next. He is characterized by his prickliness and touchiness; when aggrieved, he hurls profanities with reckless abandon and complains that his feelings have been hurt, resembling a tyrannical child. We learn early on that he was very close to his mother; he confides in Cyril that he feels her ghost close by, watching over him, and tells Alma that he keeps a lock of her hair sewn into the lining of his coat, over his breast. Like the protagonist of another film with the word “Phantom” in the title, he is unready and unwilling to undergo separation from the security his mother embodies. As uptight and self-possessed as he initially appears, Reynolds is driven by infantile needs for approval, love, and control. “I think he’s too fussy,” Alma remarks. For all his artistic genius, he is little more than a spoiled baby.
As the film begins, the rational is in league with the appetitive. Cyril is not subservient to Reynolds, per se, but makes it her role to aid, abet, and enable him, structuring the world around him to meet his needs. We first meet her opening the windows of the House of Woodcock, filling it with light, and closing a doorway on a descending staircase. She is the gatekeeper, deciding what enters and, in the case of Reynolds’ lovers, what exits, and when. An early shot establishes her position, showing her standing on a balcony, looking down on a procession from above. (Peggy Dodd is framed similarly for a key scene in The Master.) She instructs Reynolds in necessities and keeps him apprised of important information relating to the outside world, tolerating him but never steamrolled by him. “Cyril is always right,” he tells Alma. “It’s not because the fabric is adored by the clients that Cyril is right, it’s right because it’s right.” As the embodiment of the intellect, Cyril is the one with claims to truth, to absolutes. Just as Reynolds is associated with hunger, Cyril is associated with ideas. She presents them to her brother – “I like that idea very much,” he says, when she suggests that he retire to the country after a dress is completed – and Alma appeals to her for approval (“Do you like this idea?”).
The relationship between the Woodcock siblings is functional, but far from ideal; Cyril keeps the house in order, but she can only manage and direct Reynolds’ ravenous appetite. In the film’s opening moments, Anderson’s camera, introducing us to the House of Woodcock, tilts upwards to reveal a staircase leading up to a heavenly white glow. Reynolds is enthroned at the top of the house, wielding despotic power not unlike a deity presiding over the proceedings. For all its beauty, something is rotten in the House of Woodcock; its god is its belly, its mind on earthly things. “A house that does not change is a dead house,” says Reynolds, and it is Alma, whose name means “soul,” who must enter as the emissary of a love that mortifies the flesh and brings new life.
Alma is defined by constancy and immovability; “If you try to have a staring contest with me,” she informs Reynolds on their first date, “You will lose.” Modeling a dress for him, she says, “I can stand for hours… No one can stand as long as I can.” Like Lancaster between Freddie and Peggy, Alma interposes herself as a middle ground between Reynolds and Cyril, disrupting the tyrannical codependence between id and superego, seeking to subdue the appetites while negotiating with the intellect. (Also like Lancaster, Alma is formally photographed more than once in the film; both are immortalized as images that inspire and attract Freddie and Reynolds, respectively.) The Woodcock siblings’ dynamic is insular, resistant to intrusions by the Other, but Alma resists being flattened, or solipsized, as Humbert Humbert might put it. Certainly Alma’s love for Reynolds is sincere; she is flattered by his attention, allowing him and Cyril to take her measurements, and tells us, “In his work, I become perfect.” She cares for the same things he cares for, is protective of him and his work, is more than happy to be his muse and lover. “Reynolds has made my dreams come true,” she says, in narration that opens the film, “And I have given him what he desires most in return: every piece of me.” Yet Alma is not passive, but active. She willingly gives of herself, but refuses to be devoured. Reynolds may possess her, but she wishes to possess him in return. Though he seems content to make her simply another semi-permanent fixture in the House of Woodcock, she throws his carefully tailored routine into disarray. “I have to love him in my own way,” she insists, and when her attempts at kindness are rebuffed, she complains that nothing in the house is “normal or natural.” By her presence as a radically different human being who will not conform to his whims, Alma teaches Reynolds – who, like Charles Foster Kane, wants only “love on his own terms” – that true love requires sacrifice and compromise. In The Four Loves, Lewis writes that “To love at all is to be vulnerable,” and to deliver this lesson, Alma must penetrate the armor of Reynolds’ self-protective lovelessness. This being a Paul Thomas Anderson film, of course, she employs a rather unconventional strategy to do so, non-fatally poisoning her lover with a dose of poison mushrooms. It is no accident, in Platonic terms, that Alma curbs Reynolds’ voraciously greedy appetite by making him sick to his stomach.
Like the second Mrs. De Winter contending with the ghost of Rebecca, Alma must supplant the ghost of the late Mrs. Woodcock. Perhaps Reynolds’ fixation on his mother is the titular phantom thread, which Alma must pull on to unravel his carefully curated bachelor’s life. In delirium after a first round of mushroom poisoning, Reynolds sees the ghost of his mother, wearing the bridal dress he and Cyril made for her as children. “I miss you,” he tells her. “I think about you all the time. I hear your voice say my name when I dream, and when I wake up, there are tears streaming down my face.” However, when Alma enters the room to take care of Reynolds, his eyes follow her, and when they return, the spirit of his mother is gone. A curse, perhaps, has been broken. Now, rather than pining for an intangible past, Reynolds must learn to love this woman of flesh and blood in the present, leaving his mother and cleaving unto his wife. He proposes to Alma the following morning; “Keep my sour heart from choking,” he entreats.
She accepts, and they are married. By now, an important shift has subtly but unmistakably occurred in the House of Woodcock: the rational Cyril is no longer cowed by Reynolds’ appetites. When he whines about his hurt feelings, she is unswayed: “I don’t want to hear it because it hurts my ears.” With reason and spirit now aligned, the tyrannical outbursts of passion are no longer effective. “What a model of politeness you two are,” Reynolds spits at the two women, annoyed by his loss of control. While he has been humbled and brought low, Reynolds is not banished like Freddie. Passion is subdued, but not entirely, and not forever; instead, as the film concludes, Cyril, Alma, and Reynolds are still progressing towards an uneasy but harmonious equilibrium of which Aristotle might well approve. Reynolds rather literally swallows his pride and lets Alma prevail in the battle of wills; she presents a vision of human flourishing that goes beyond the material world and into the next life, a vision of patient love in which she takes care of his dresses, “keeping them from dust and ghosts and time.” Cyril is seen rocking a stroller, entrusted with Reynolds and Alma’s baby, the icon of their union: at this point, their child is no more than a vague, distant idea, but it is an idea the soul uses to inspire and guide the passions in their ascent. What makes Phantom Thread so profound is the way it acts as both a picture of a marriage, the relation between two radically different people, and the state of every human soul, what happens inside us as we seek to subdue our own inner Woodcocks. Yet the process is not easy, nor is it finished quickly; Reynolds, presented with Alma’s vision, still remarks, “I’m getting hungry.” Alma smiles. She can feed him. As Coventry Patmore writes in The Angel in the House, a poetic account of his own happy marriage:
“Man must be pleased; but him to please
Is woman’s pleasure; down the gulf
Of his condoled necessities
She casts her best, she flings herself.”