Dysfunctional Is Just Another Kind of Functional: Phantom Thread (2017)

I’ve heard Phantom Thread (2017) described as kinky, gothic, and passionate to the point of excess. All of these are true. I’ve heard it described as a film about dresses (check out Tomris Laffly’s awesome interview with costume designer Mark Bridges), desire, artistic control, working from home, and breakfast. All of these are true, too. It has great acting, great cinematography, great directing, great editing, great costumes, a great score, and (if you keep an open mind) a great story. Two days after it premiered in Taiwan, I attended a screening with only a dozen people. Spoilers.

Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis in full command), a renowned postwar London couturier who specializes in dresses, must have Total Control: of his work, his house, his day, and his muse. If his muse can’t take the frosty rigidity of this lifestyle, he has his older sister and manager of household-cum-business Cyril (Lesley Manville, also in full command, and salty) dismiss her with a dress for her troubles. Enter Alma (Vicky Krieps, masterfully not in full command), a waitress that Reynolds meets, seduces with a breakfast order, wines, dines, and measures for a dress fitting. Cyril tells her she has Reynolds’s ideal body shape, and she becomes his next muse. But when she realizes the deal she’s gotten, she forces Reynolds to renegotiate with some underhanded tactics.

Alma opens the film with a line in medias res: “Reynolds has made my dreams come true, and I have given him what he desires most in return. . . . Every piece of me.” Like many aspects of the film, this should be taken with many grains of salt. At first it seems like Alma is jealous of Cyril and, later, Reynolds’s longtime customer Countess Henrietta Harding (Gina McKee) because they can attract Reynolds’s attention, which is what the previous muse wanted most. But that would be silly, since his attention is directed by his work with them, not by them as persons, and Alma is manifestly not a silly person. No, what she envies is the respect as equals that Reynolds bestows on them, and their freedom in his midst. The Countess is a customer, so the respect here is professional courtesy; Cyril, on the other hand, is respected because she demands it: choice lines, already turned into GIFs, include, “Don’t pick a fight with me. You won’t come out alive,” and, “I don’t want to hear it because it hurts my ears”—both to Reynolds. And narratively speaking, as Geoffrey O’Brien notes, “it is Cyril’s objective gaze that stabilizes the competing forces of will [that are] set in play.” If she wants the respect Cyril commands, Alma concludes, she must command it herself. Hence the mushroom and her refusing Cyril’s request for a doctor.

Another smokescreen: Alma’s a rural waitress, and in an early scene she disagrees with Reynolds’s choice of fabric. Perhaps she was never meant to enter into this world? But no, she bonds with Reynolds over their shared disgust at the behavior of one of his customers and her mistreatment of his work, and she inspires him to take back the dress, resulting in a scene both hilarious and righteously moving.

One more. In the climactic scene, when Reynolds watches Alma make a poisoned mushroom omelette, we get the feeling that he suspects something’s up. If he had confronted her, we’d’ve known approximately when he’d grown convinced; instead, he chews, listens to her monologue, and swallows in consent. So when did he become sure? Attuned viewers know what’s up as soon as Alma hesitates in the woods beside a mushroom colony, but when thinking about Reynolds, the more we observe and ponder, the more it seems as if he’d already suspected Alma’s role the first time. And if he found the experience agreeable (after a fashion), he would be even more inclined to think so.

Despite the film’s many glorious merits, though, it’s not perfect. Many reviewers have commented on Alma’s lack of backstory, notwithstanding hints that she might be a refugee from Hitler. But the truth is that Reynolds doesn’t care, and so whatever fortitude and initiative her experiences have given her take him all the more by surprise, as it does us. Christopher Orr observes that the subplot of the phantom thread is dropped—“phantom thread” can mean many things, of course (Editor’s note: Director Paul Thomas Anderson says it came from the hallucinations overworked Victorian seamstresses would see after work, or even during work, much like smartphone addicts often hear “phantom vibrations” when there’re no calls or texts—and that he has no idea what it means in the context of the film), but here Orr is referring to Reynolds’s habit of sewing secret things into the linings, specifically when Alma discovers the phrase “never cursed” in the Countess’s wedding dress. I’d say that this subplot is actually just part of the larger motif of Reynolds’s obsession with his mother, which to me is a shortcoming, as I explain below. The phrase “never cursed,” though, is deceptively meaningful. Aside from being spiritual protection for the Countess, it begs us to ask: Who is cursed in the film? Cyril, still single because she helped sew their mother’s wedding dress? Reynolds, for the same reason? Is his maternal fixation a curse? Is Alma cursed to be in this world? Is he cursed to have her in his life? There’s a complex swirl of signification here: “Never cursed,” sewed with phantom thread, evokes the relationship between Reynolds and Alma, which is cursed but at the same time is also the lifting of that very curse, in other words a relationship connected by a phantom thread.

But back to Reynolds’s mother. The film asks us to believe that his fixation on her led him to craft out such an orderly and rigid lifestyle, not because he likes it that way (note his fast driving), but to await the maternal figure par excellence who can make even this version of him openly accept some badly needed TLC. This one sentence describes everything you need to know about Reynolds as a character; the dressmaking is incidental. Whereas Alma is unfathomable, Reynolds is ultimately rendered transparent.

This one point notwithstanding, the film ends on a high note: Adam Nayman seems to be one of the few critics to see the ending as I do, as unqualifiedly happy. “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Well, at least Tolstoy got the second part right.

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