Anderson Gives Us Beauty, But Little Insight In 'Phantom Thread'
By Andrea Thompson
Two people finding they're truly meant for each other on-screen is generally one of the most touching experiences we can have in a movie theater. But there's a darker side to this story that isn't often acknowledged. When both people are horrible examples of humanity, they can also magnify each other's worst instincts. Such is the case for the ultimately toxic relationship in Paul Thomas Anderson's “Phantom Thread.”
The two meet cute enough, when Reynolds Woodcock (the reliably incredible Daniel Day-Lewis), a renowned dressmaker in 1950s London, heads out to the country to escape the hustle and bustle of the life he's created with the House of Woodcock, which provides attire to elites such as starlets, heiresses, and royalty. When he goes to a restaurant for a meal, one of the waitresses, Alma (Vicky Krieps, who matches Day-Lewis with breathtaking ease), charms him with her clumsiness, and he asks her to dinner. Before long, she has become not only his lover, but his muse, inspiring him to take his creative powers to new, almost impossibly beautiful heights. Of course, we see nary a hint of Alma's clumsiness again.
Alma's love is complicated by the fact that Woodcock's genius is naturally accompanied by a cold, controlling nature, albeit in a more passive-aggressive fashion than we normally see. He has acquired and just as quickly discarded many women in the past, with Cyril (Lesley Manville), the sister who serves as his faithful assistant remaining the one constant, as well as the person he reserves the most affection for. Alma at first seems as disposable as the rest, but quickly proves her staying power, even if she can't quite seem to break through Woodcock's carefully ordered life.
However, it's quickly clear that these two were made for each other, and all that implies. Dysfunction generally makes for good entertainment if nothing else, but for the most part throughout “Phantom Thread,” the cool British calm remains as still as a quiet pond in a lovely meadow. Even when the water is disturbed, the stakes feel so low as to make one wonder if there really are any. It makes one wonder if Anderson saw his characters as less deserving than the beautiful clothes Woodcock creates, since he devotes so much loving attention to them rather than the people who wear them. Indeed, this attention is so one-sided it feels more like the clothes are wearing people, rather than the reverse.
Despite Anderson being an undisputed master of his craft, the love story in “Phantom Thread” simply isn't that interesting until the end, save for small moments that show just how at home these two are in a society that demands conformity at all costs. Especially disturbing is when they take a dress right off of one of their patrons, a woman who is clearly mentally ill, when she's lying in bed, stating that her behavior isn't fitting for someone wearing a dress from the House of Woodcock. The movie treats it as a triumph, and Anderson can hedge all he wants about keeping the film firmly in the perspective of his two lovers, but the simple fact is that as director, he is god over what we see and how we see it. He has the power to condemn the way Alma and Woodcock treat such a vulnerable person. He does not. It's part of a larger pattern in the film in the way male power goes completely unquestioned.
True, the two women who are able to remain at Woodcock's side are clearly able to hold their own with him. But their stories are only significant as it relates to him. Very little of Alma's background is explored. Who exactly is she, who are her parents, and does she really want anything besides him? And what of Cyril, the sister who apparently has no life apart from her brother's? Are they only allowed to have a personality when it serves to keep the life of the male hero more interesting?
That, in essence, is the problem with “Phantom Thread.” While it does try to say something about creative process and power dynamics, it's actually all about who gets the privilege of keeping the difficult male genius happy. He gets to keep his power and his world intact while also conforming to his society's demand that he take that final step which is deemed necessary for happiness, that of marrying and starting a family. But even that is ultimately self-serving to him, a needed break from routine in order to stay current. Take away the awards season touches, and “Phantom Thread” is just another story about upholding monogamy and family life at all costs. Ultimately, the film is much like the fashion industry itself: a beautifully ordered, very strange world that can occasionally be cruel and erupt into delicious chaos, but hollow at its core.