Paul Thomas Anderson’s exquisite and extraordinary new film is the third in what feels like a trilogy of stories about the waning of paternal and patriarchal authority across the long twentieth-century. That’s not just because it’s his third release about the subject, either, following on from There Will Be Blood and The Master, but because Phantom Thread gathers the very different insights of those two films and congeals them into a merciless and monumental account of what the patriarchal voice has to exclude, omit and sublimate in order to insist upon its authority and representative responsibility in the first place. In truth, this voice has preoccupied Anderson’s filmography in one way or another from its inception, from the anal-retentive delivery of Philip Baker Hall in Hard Eight, to the phallically inflected utterances of Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights, to the self-help seminars for beta males run by Tom Cruise in Magnolia, to the sublime long-distance freakout of Philip Seymour Hoffman in Punch-Drunk Love. You might go so far as to say that Anderson’s auteurism has consisted partly of situating auteurist figures within scenarios destinated to thwart, frustrate and diminish them – a tendency that feels more timely than ever at present, even or especially if Phantom Thread feels like the capstone of Anderson’s career as well, exuding a finality and finitude that sits naturally alongside Daniel Day-Lewis’ announcement that this will be his last role before he retires from an acting life that has lasted over three decades.
In many ways, that masculine auteurist charisma left the big screen years ago, finding a second wind in the grand patriarchal arcs of quality television – Tony Soprano, Walter White, Don Draper, Jimmy McNulty – and the quality television showrunners, such as David Milch, Vince Gilligan, Matthew Weiner and David Simon, who became nearly as notorious in their fastidious and exacting need for total control over their artistic product. No surprise, then, that Anderson himself is one of the few directors who hasn’t made the leap into television, despite the fact that the sprawling narratives of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, in particular, would seem to cry out for some kind of more sustained serial treatment. Instead, Anderson’s serial impulses shrank just as quality television was expanding, starting with the compression of Punch-Drunk Love – a short film in comparison to Magnolia – and then moving through a trilogy of releases, culminating with Phantom Thread, that contemplate the history, legacy and burden of what might be described as the paternal, auteurist voice, onierically and solipsistically obsessed with the aptiness and aptitude of its own utterances.
In Phantom Thread, that results in a character who, in his own way, is more extreme and unremitting than Daniel Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview, or Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd – Reynolds Woodcock, also played by Daniel Day-Lewis, a mid-century fashion designer who resides in London with his sister, Cyril, played by Lesley Manville. From the very opening of the film, it’s clear that Reynolds is more fastidious in his anal-retentive genius than any of Anderson’s previous creations, demanding a perfectly calibrated and curated world within which to design, model, fit and parade his costumes, which consist largely of ceremonial outfits, especially wedding dresses, made for the elite and aristocratic. Like his outfits, the spaces within which the film unfolds are large, luminous and languorous – so expansive, at first, that the film barely needs a narrative in its opening scenes, and simply flows on and around Reynolds as if mesmerised by the momentum he has managed to generate from every facet of his life. Valuing the most precise etiquette, decorum, punctuality and punctiliousness, Reynolds seems to have crafted a life that is inimical to narrative itself, so resistant is it to disruption, with even his romantic conquests subordinated to his practice, and little discernible difference between his models and lovers.
What changes all that is a chance meeting with Alma Elson, played by Vicky Krieps, a waitress who he meets in a seaside cafeteria. From the moment they meet, there is an odd chemistry between the two, and so they find themselves on a date the same night, with Reynolds finally asking Alma if she would like to come up to his private apartment. From there, however, the evening takes a very sudden turn, as Reynolds fits her out for a dress in what appears to be a quite genteel and decorous form of foreplay, only for Cyril to arrive and start taking his protégé’s measurements, all the while sniffing, scrutinising and examining her as she would any other client. On its own, this shift might not be so surprising, but it draws upon an irreducible queerness that has hung over Reynolds’ date with Alma from the outset, which also happens to be the first point in the film at which the audience learn anything about his private life. At the same time as Alma, then, we discover that Reynolds’ father was absent, that he learned haberdashery from his mother, that he prefers to talk about his mother than any other subject – fashion included – and that she is the most significant woman in his life, apart from his sister, who acts as her surrogate in most respects anyway now that she has passed away. The most intimate moment of their date involves Reynolds confessing that he keeps a lock of his mother’s hair sewn into his coat over his chest (“I try to keep her with me always”) before responding to Alma’s query of why he has remained unmarried with the somewhat cryptic reason that “I make dresses.”
Since we’re finding this out at the same time as Alma, and since Anderson’s script is so opaque and oblique, much of the significance of all this only ramifies in retrospect, and ramifies more and more with deeper and deeper retrospect – a feature of the film as a whole. Nevertheless, it’s clear from the outset that Reynolds’ and Alma’s first night together never quite permits them a properly private moment, blooming from there into a romance in which we barely see the two romantic leads do anything more than hold hands. For large stretches of the film, it’s profoundly unclear whether they have a sexual relationship at all, with Reynolds seeming to relish Alma’s boyish, androgynous qualities, while simultaneously only being capable of finding her attractive once he “adds” her womanly attributes through his own outfits. In particular, he tells her right off that he likes the fact of her not having prominent breasts, since it means that “it’s my job to give you some…if I choose.” Certainly, we never see the two of them ever share an overtly sexual or even romantic moment, unless Alma is clothed, or being clothed, in one of Reynolds’ outfits, to the point where it’s hard not to feel that his real libidinal investment lies in measuring, organising and conceiving of her as a woman in the first place – it’s their version of intercourse – while eschewing all but the most brotherly or filial of physical contact when she is out of costume.
In other words, clothing here performs something of the function of a fetish, providing Reynolds with a vast armature – or armoire – for clothing and concealing his fixation with the more androgynous, less recognisably feminine bodies required to house his unusual designs in the first place. Conversely, however, clothing feels like a mechanism for enabling women to be sensuously attractive and available to Reynolds, a requirement that quickly comes to feel inextricable from his proximity to and obsession with his mother, who he imagines watching over and participating in every encounter with even the slightest hint of romance. By extension, his whole design practice comes to feel like a way of mediating all his relationships with women through his mother, whose lock of hair remains sewn into his own clothing at all times, and whose skills and teaching inform every detail of his routine, deportment and design. Unable to escape his mother’s presence in every woman he meets, but unable, for that very reason, to properly conceive of any one woman in a completely romantic or sexual way either, Reynolds appears to seek out women who fail to meet conventional standards of femininity, or even to strategically divest women of their femininity, in order to then control, measure and tailor them to fit his own particular needs.
What Anderson outlines, then, is a quite deft and delicate portrait of a drag sensibility – and it takes a certain deft and tact to paint this portrait of a man who has only been with women, and who has never thought of anything other than being with women, but who is nevertheless, in his very actions, routines and habits – in his whole being – indubitably, inextricably and inexorably homosexual. It’s hard not read in this, then, a commentary on anal retentiveness as auteurism – insofar as auteurism is nearly always framed as male and straight – with Reynolds’ genius ramifying less as a form of cohesive world-building so much as an escalating paranoia, monomaniacal and schematic omission of anything that doesn’t gel with the splendid and self-sufficient isolation of his aesthetic voice. Within that context, his worst conceivable scenario is being alone with Alma in romantic or domestic conjunctions, devoid of clothing, models or the presence of his sister to come between them, leading Alma to observe from an early stage in their relationship that “there’s always people around and, if not, there’s something between us…some distance.” Yet her very ability to make that observation renders Alma more of a challenge to contain and curate than Reynolds’ earlier romantic conquests, partly because she appears to be the first of his partners who doesn’t approach him with any initial knowledge of his fashion background, and the first to seek something beyond his celebrity, although the fact of him approaching her might signify his deeper desire to be known – and to know himself – in this way as well.
The relationship between Reynolds and Alma therefore plays out as something like that between a director and his star, or an artist and his muse, with her continuous efforts to elasticise the boundaries of their rapport proving to be just what renders her so inspiring, alluring and troubling to begin with. That all culminates with the tipping-point and dramatic crux of the film, in the form of a scene in which Alma decides to surprise Reynolds by dismissing Cyril and the staff early to prepare him dinner alone, thereby forcing him to commune with her in a space of unmediated domestic and romantic intimacy to a greater extent than ever before. While this may be a small gesture for Alma, and a small incident in most films, it’s enough to send Reynolds’ entire physiology, physiognomy and artistry into utter disarray – he can only maintain the slightest semblance of normality by steering the conversation back towards clothing, as if trying to clothe himself in the conversaion – until he collapses the next day, in front of all his staff, onto his latest dress. From there, he descends into a feverish, torpid, amniotic state that lasts the entire second act of the film, as he is confined to his bed, only accepts help from Alma and Cyril, temporarily relinquishes the fashion industry, and forbids anything remotely resembling unnecessary “fuss” or noise.
In one of the retrospective revelations so characteristic of the film as a whole, it becomes peculiarly and pregnantly clear, at this exact moment, that anything outside of Reynolds’ routine – that is, any kind of direct, intimate, interpersonal communion with women, with the exception of his sister – is enough to constitute “fuss” or “noise,” as the hustle and bustle of the fashionable world turns out to have been a monumental strategy for erecting an impregnable and unassailable silence around his private life. Accordingly, Jonny Greenwood’s score has two quite distinct registers – a flourishing, swelling, ceremonial motif to accompany Reynolds’ public self, and a quieter strain that acts as a bulwark against the possibility of him displaying or even experiencing a genuinely private or intimate moment. For that reason, this part of the score is less like music, or even ambient sound, and more like textured or tactile silence – silence so precious and precarious that it is always on the verge of being taken and itself silenced by noise, no matter how distant or incremental. In other words, as the film proceeds, it becomes clearer that Reynolds’ demand for silence and for routine amount to the same thing, and that in both cases his aim is ultimately not to possess a private self, or to possess a private self so radically remote that, for all intents and purposes, it doesn’t exist at all, not even – or especially – to himself.
In many ways, this situation of having a protagonist perpetually displaced from their most private moments often reminded me of Kazuo Ishiguro’s characters, and especially Anthony Hopkins’ performance in The Remains of the Day, whose stately and refined address Phantom Thread often recalls. As in that film, this type of characterisation imbues the screenplay with an incredible opacity that only fully resonates in retrospect, but also an amazing texturality, as Reynolds’ private self is effectively peformed publically and spun out into the world of his fashion practice, whose permutations and combinations take on a remarkably cognitive and affective quality, as if choreographing the connections and desires that remain sublimated within Reynolds’ own psyche. No surprise, then, that the most traumatic thing Alma can possible ask of Reynolds is to sacrifice that silence to spend a moment of quietness with her, nor that Cyril tries to warn her about it in advance, nor that Reynolds himself responds with all the anxiety and panic of a man whose deepest secrets – secrets that remain hidden even to himself – are about to be exposed to the world at large. No surprise, either, that all those anxieties should fix on the figure of the doctor, Robert Hardy, played by Brian Gleeson, who is call in to assess him on his sickbed, and whom Reynolds promptly instructs to “fuck off” before he has a chance to diagnose his condition.
Within that crushing scenario, there’s only one way for Reynolds to recover – namely, to ask Alma to marry him, and thereby counter the trauma of having his privacy breached and surprised by that one night alone with the performative privacy of their wedding ceremony, whose publically sanctioned spectacle is only enhanced by the fact that celebrity wedding dresses are the lynchpin of his fashion practive. Early in the film, he observes that the best bride is one who not only demands the most beautiful wedding dress ever made, but the only wedding dress ever made, and in that sense he is the true bride of this marriage, insisting on his utter singularity only at the moment at which the generic requirements and public spectacle of the marriage ceremony and couture make it safe to do so. It’s an extraordinary transition, and yet the most beautifully deft moment in the story comes just after, with the pastor making an off-hand joke about marrying Reynolds himself before Anderson cuts to a space that seems to reiterate and consolidate all the crystalline silence and pitch-perfect privacy that Reynolds has hoped marriage will bring – the heart of the Alps, the site of his honeymoon – only for Alma to puncture his tranquility by eating her breakfast even more loudly and abrasively than usual, in one of Reynolds’ greatest peeves.
It was at this moment, against the backdrop of these luminous mountains, that I realised just how effectively the colour white is used as a source of silence over the course of the film, softening every noise in its purview and sequestering us from Reynolds’ inner thoughts as elegantly as Reynolds is sequestered from them himself. You might say that the colour white here is the nexus between sound and silence, the medium that mutes sound on the way to silence, just as the brilliant wedding dresses that spearhead Reynolds’ practice form the nexus at which negotiates his public and private selves, balanced between the lock of his mother’s hair over his breast and the breasts that he grants temporarily and provisionally to the androgynous bodies that he clothes. Marrying Alma initially promises to consolidate all that, and yet even the spectacle and security of their wedding ceremony comes undone when the two of them happen to run into Dr. Hardy, now nicknamed “the boy-doctor” by Renyolds, who also happens to be vacationing in the Alps. At first, Reynolds appears to have processed the trauma of this boy-doctor having almost diagnosed and penetrated his silence – or, alternatively, have almost occupied a position previously reserved for his mother, and her various surrogates – only for him to reiterate what he said to Hardy (“I think I told you to fuck off”) more plosively and pointedly than before. It’s one of several expletive moments in the film at which the word “fuck” and “feelings” feel like one and the same, since Reynolds tends to precede both with the same elongated “f” sound, a sound everyone around him recognises as a harbinger of a breakdown and panic.
It feels only natural, then, that the boy-doctor turns out to be a romantic rival, partly because he draws Alma into a space that is utterly antithetical to Reynolds’ world – a dance hall near their ski resort that is replete with disorganised and chaotic bodies, and whose whirling, promiscuous motion utterly confounds the delicate negotiation of public and private identity required to maintain Reynolds’ immaculately appointed sense of self. At the same time, however, there’s a sense that this boy-doctor is a rival for Reynolds’ own affections, if only because of how closely his physique and frame approximates the lithe androgynous contours that form Reynolds’ ideal canvas. Between Reynolds, Alma and the boy-doctor, then, the film finally announces his closeted subjectivity, and its aesthetic as that of a closet epistemology, according to which Reynolds finally discovers himself incapable of performing privacy in the “right” way and instead drawn by the rhythms of the dance hall into a series of postures that are alternately – or simultaneously – too public and too private. Yet that just prompts Alma to come up with the extraordinary compromise that concludes the film, as she prepares what initially seems to be another version of the dinner that proved so traumatic to Reynolds in the first place, but this time with a fuller apprehension of just what it is about that domestic proximity that proved so toxic to him.
Accordingly, she lets him know about this dinner in advance, but also prepares it in an infinitely more private space than the original London apartment – his winter cottage – and, most importantly, peppers it with just enough poisonous mushroom flesh to almost kill him, thereby allowing her to play the role of mother, and subject his body to the same meticulous, fastidious control he was trying to achieve through his fashion practice, in her efforts to nurse him back to health. For that reason, this also feels like the end of his fashion career; certainly, in the future that Alma can suddenly now glimpse for them both, haute couture no longer seems to play a central role. Better still, the poisoning acknowledges the boy-doctor as a key figure in mediating their relationship, but in the guise of a role that Alma has now deliberately orchestrated for them, meaning that his sensuous presence – and his resemblance to Alma – can no longer threaten their domestic sanctity and harmony. Earlier in the film, it has been revealed that Alma’s voiceover is in fact part of a dialogue with the boy-doctor, but the great twist of this scene is that this confessional proximity is itself a part of the charade needed to turn him into the mediator between her and Reynolds’ disparate desires, as the two motifs of Greenwood’s score finally come together, before gathering into one, final magnificent flourish in the very last moments of the movie. The first time we saw Alma and Reynolds kiss was after she defended him against an unwanted client – a client who insisted on transgressing his public image – and now we see them kiss once again, as they both discover a kind of true love in somehow, somewhere, acknowledging his queerness and working it into their relationship, and their future, in the most generous way they know: “I finally understand you – and I take care of your dresses.”