The breakfast table is a crucial site of struggle in Phantom Thread (2017). The seating is always the same: the celebrated tailor Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) sits at the head, his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville – perfection) to the right, and his lover/muse/assistant to the left. The first time we see this arrangement, the seated muse offers Reynolds a plate of Danish pastries. When he refuses – ‘Remember I told you…no more stodgy things’ – she berates him for failing to show her any affection. The first section of the film produces her younger successor – Alma (Vicky Krieps) – who sits in the same seat, looking up at Reynolds with yearning admiration. At this point, you may have a sense of déjà vu. The circular narrative, with a different woman being sacrificed periodically to the altar of a male genius, is reminiscent of mother! (2017). But director Paul Thomas Anderson does not veer off into pretentious chaos, instead drawing a more traditional arc, somewhere between a 1940s women’s picture and the romantic comedies of Powell and Pressburger.
Unlike Jennifer Lawrence’s helpless pinball in mother!, Alma is the director of her own story. Early on we are invited to see her as an ingenue, desperate for the hidden wisdom of the tailor. Her blushing waitress is quickly enamoured of Reynold’s style, confidence, and looks. But even here she displays hints of another character – a self-deprecating confidence, a sly declarativeness – that anticipates conflict. We have to endure Reynold’s examination-style flirtations as he measures her body for dresses, and then the actions of a typical abuser, as he opens up and let’s Alma see his vulnerability, before shutting her out completely. Reynolds is slow to change. But throughout the film, Alma subverts her position of naivety and innocence. In fact, what the narrative reveals is a fragile, emotionally-stunted man, and a woman who is sharp, wiley and willing to make great sacrifices to create meaning and happiness. This is the assertive cunning of the oppressed, forced to know their masters better than anyone else in order to survive.
But does Alma know Reynolds better than his lovely ‘so and so’, Cyril? A rivalry between the two women – not a crude contest for Reynold’s attention; they are both their own people – disturbs the natural order in the House of Woodwock. Reynolds is also obsessed with his late mother (look there for the key to the film’s twist), to the extent that he has a lock of her hair sewed into the canvas of his jacket and sees her apparition in mushroom-induced hallucinations. As Alma explains in her knowing narration, he sporadically succumbs to bouts of bedridden self-pity. Alma, on the other hand, adapts to her position, taking on responsibilities while fighting to retain her individuality. He speaks in pernickety snipes and overblown platitudes. She is quietly profound, telling Cyril: ‘I need to learn how to love him my way.’ Alma plays all the (often contradictory) roles women have had over the ages, and she transcends them all.
Anderson’s mythological essays on the founding spirit of America – There Will be Blood (2007) and The Master (2012) – contain devastating indictments of the effect ideology has on personal relationships. Phantom Thread zooms in on the relationships in order to broaden the emotional scope. But the film is no less about power just because it lacks preachers and industrialists. However, the final note is different: it’s Anderson’s first hopeful film about power, and the hope is not that power will be voluntarily eschewed, but that it will be effectively resisted, and then sublimated into...something else. It’s a text on overcoming intransigence and creating new possibilities. A shared life is possible. Recognition is possible. Self-transformation is possible!