That’s a polite way of saying, “A great man is standing in front of every great woman.”
Reynolds Woodcock is a great man — on paper. He’s unparalleled as a couture dressmaker, courted by princesses and socialites for his elaborate dressmaking skills. This artistry comes at a cost — Woodcock can not handle even the slightest interruption, nuisance, or deviation from his predictable schedule. He has relationships, but like fashion, the women are either “in” or “out” this season. There’s no one in life who truly matters to him except his sister, Cyril, whose life revolves entirely keeping Reynolds’ in order. He wants for nothing that he hasn’t already got. He has no appetite.
Reynolds is chilly and impolite, with little patience for social norms. The exception is when he’s in seduction mode. That’s the case when he encounters Alma, a waitress, and orders item after item of food just so he can keep talking to her. It’s easy to see why Alma falls for Reynolds. As the relationship progresses, however, it becomes more and more difficult to understand why she’d stay with him.
That’s not a fault of Paul Thomas Anderson’s writing, but of human nature, because as we all know, people stay in bad relationships for all sorts of reasons. We never learn much about Alma’s background, or her history with men. Reynolds might be her first love, or he might be the latest in a long string of men who have failed to appreciate her. Whatever the reason, Alma commits to Reynolds, immediately and fully. She’s no fool — she fully expects him to get rid of her, as he has done with countless women before her. (He usually asks his sister to do it.) She does not believe that Reynolds is as committed to her as she is to him, and spends the movie trying to find a way to earn that commitment.
Phantom Thread is a fascinating exploration of relationship dynamics, unfolding steadily and deliberately. All of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films have a touch of weirdness (or more than a touch), and that’s here, too, but in a quieter, more measured way that feels at home with its setting in 1950s London. Class dynamics, men and women’s places, and what’s “proper” are all heightened in such an environment. When provoked, Reynolds can be a tyrant — it’s not that he’s mean, so much as it’s clear that he cares nothing for the feelings of others. His world revolves entirely around himself, and he’s all work. His life is filled with elegant, gorgeous, expensive materials, and he almost never seems to take pleasure in them. He will throw a hell of a tantrum if any of them are disturbed, however. He is happiest when examining one of his exquisite dresses on its intended wearer. He lives for this moment, and this moment only, and doesn’t seem to care how the life between those moments goes.
Alma is quietly and carefully determined to change that, pushing Reynolds to the limits of his fastidiousness, sometimes exceeding them. As the story begins, she’s more invested in the relationship than he is. She knows, better than Cyril, better than Reynolds, and better than we do, how far she can push Reynolds before he ditches her for a new model. Alma enjoys the life of luxury Reynolds provides her. She especially loves being the muse and model for his fabulous dresses. But she isn’t particularly devoted to these trimmings. It’s him she’s devoted to — and as a partner, he’s pretty awful at every turn. He snaps, barks orders, never displays any kindness that doesn’t also suit himself. At one point, Alma attempts to share what little “art” she has with Reynolds — she wants to make him dinner. It’s an echo of their meet cute in the restaurant, when he seemed insatiable. After that, though, he rarely wants anything specific of her. Reynolds doesn’t respond well to her first attempt at a satisfying meal, so she tries another.
We question what Alma sees in Reynolds, besides his artistry — there seems to be nothing else. But can any answer truly justify sticking with an abusive relationship? Women have done so throughout history, sacrificing and subjugating themselves to please a man, for all sorts of reasons. Alma does exactly that, and yet the way she does it allows her to assert a sly, subtle degree of control, even in early scenes of the film. Reynolds could get rid of her, and Alma could leave him, but neither ever seriously gestures toward this. Their relationship is a fact, and the question of the movie is, how can they make this wretched romance work?
When I started film school, Darren Aronofsky and Paul Thomas Anderson were the up-and-coming auteurs whose work most excited me. In 2017, they’ve both made films about great artists who end up being total sons of bitches; both films are actually about the women in their lives who make sacrifice after sacrifice so their men can feel like masters of the universe. Aronofsky’s mother! is brash and outrageous, while Anderson’s Phantom Thread is his most restrained film to date. Both men are very clearly and consciously taking a look in the mirror and airing out the ugliest sides of their egos, showing us how they must look through the eyes of the women in their life. It isn’t pretty, though Aronofsky and Anderson end up having very different visions of where this kind of dynamic goes.
Phantom Thread is a visual feast — every single corner of every single frame is beautiful to behold. Vicky Krieps, unknown to most American moviegoers, makes Alma’s enigmatic motives compelling from start to finish. Unlike many portrayals of strong women this year, Alma could easily be mistaken for weak from scene to scene — it’s only her slow-burn arc that reassures us that she knows what she’s doing. Lesley Manville is a quiet riot as Cyril, who seems poised to be the villain of this piece when we first meet her. We expect Alma and Cyril to compete for Reynolds’ affections, but things go in a different direction. As domineering as Reynolds may come off, at heart he’s a mama’s boy who cedes control to his sister. If Cyril chose to get rid of Alma, it may very well happen. But Phantom Thread puts the indecisive Reynolds in charge of how and when this relationship ends. Though he blusters and rages, he lacks the courage or conviction to remove Alma from his life. Though it doesn’t look that way from the outside, she’s in charge the whole time.
As Reynolds, Daniel Day-Lewis is stellar. (Surprise.) Anderson gives him great, sharp dialogue to chew on, but by design, his presence in Phantom Thread flies further under the radar than his towering turns in films like There Will Be Blood and Lincoln. Daniel Day-Lewis is not the focus of this film, and Phantom Thread makes its ultimate point by letting a little-known actress from Luxembourg dominate one of the most revered film actors in history. It’s so typical for the woman to bend to the will of a man, for the great artist to stand front and center. From a certain angle, Reynolds and Alma wouldn’t look much different.
Ultimately, though, Phantom Thread is a whispered celebration of women, and not just the ones who stand up for themselves and demand to be heard. This has been a great year for women willing to speak up against the abuses of men — it’s been a very a long time coming. But we also need to acknowledge those who remain quiet and prefer not to call attention to themselves. Phantom Thread is a lovely glance at the kind of woman who, in history and in Hollywood, might otherwise fade into the background. It’s something today’s moviegoer has been all but starved of. Phantom Thread just may find a way to satisfy that hunger.