Cleveland, Ohio — “Phantom Thread,” directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, tells the story of a renowned dressmaker in 1950’s London named Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis). Woodcock designs and makes dresses for the highest of high society women, from mega-rich British women to foreign princesses. He is extremely sensitive, orderly and routine-oriented; the slightest disturbance to his daily habits can ruin his entire day. He runs like clockwork. So, it comes as a surprise that the plot of the movie unravels in the aftermath of a chance encounter he has with a waitress, named Alma (Vicky Krieps), in the country. Alma becomes Woodcock’s chief model, helper, and yes, his lover, while also moving in to his London house.
Krieps’ performance is wonderful. While she tolerates the fastidiousness of Woodcock, she thrives when she is playing his counterpart by disrupting his routines and calling him “too fussy.” Taken to its extreme, while she loves Woodcock, the order that Woodcock creates in the house becomes almost comical, and like a game, and Alma exposes it for what it is. Krieps’ does a fantastic job portraying a character who is initially awe-struck at the lavish-ness of her new surroundings, but turns cynical due to the phony nature of it all. She transcends the lavishness she was once charmed by and sees it for what it is.
Lewis’ performance is equally good. Woodcock is a deeply conflicted and complicated man, so it had to take an actor up to the task to pull it off. Woodcock is both a paragon of masculine attractiveness, but also very sensitive and fashionable. He is super successful, but also has to be taken care of like a baby when he becomes ill due to exhaustion every so often. Further, Lewis does a good job charting the gradual change of a character who was once cynical of love as he actually falls in love.
The movie itself is a testament to three major themes: work, the necessity of change and the myth of the singular genius. I’ll start with work.
Woodcock seems to only find joy in his work. Even when he first meets Alma, he doesn’t attempt to make love to her or kiss her, but rather he brings her back to his country home and takes her measurements for a dress he wants to make her. During New Years’ Eve, he doesn’t want to go dancing, but rather wants to work. When he falls ill at one point in the movie, he doesn’t want to see a doctor or rest, but wants to get right back to work as soon as possible. His work pays the bills and creates his positive reputation, but it is also his major neurosis. He relies on his work and his habits for mental stability, and to avoid emotional breakdown.
Alma’s insertion into the house brings up the question of how one negotiates the stability of one’s routines and the machine-like operations of a business with emotional changes. Yes, Woodcock’s habits were useful and necessary for a long period of time, but falling in love with Alma changes everything. Woodcock’s habits are an extension of himself, and as he feels himself change emotionally due to Alma, he resists allowing that change to be reflected in a corresponding change in his habits and routines. It brings up the notion that while we need habits and routines, there is a time where they have to evolve and shift and become different. New routines must reflect the different versions of ourselves that we evolve into, and we can resist this transformation brought about by time forever.
Finally, the film really dives into deconstructing the notion of a “singular genius.” While, of course, Woodcock is the genesis and the fountain of the ideas that get put into reality as the actual dresses, he seriously cannot do any of it alone. He has an entire staff living at his house that creates the dresses by hand. Cyril (Leslie Manville), who is for all intents and purposes Woodcock’s mother — not just his main assistant and CEO of everything that Woodcock himself doesn’t directly do — Woodcock is helpless both professionally and emotionally without her. There is a fulltime cooking staff in the house that prepares meals for Woodcock. The list goes on. While I am not saying that Woodcock isn’t a genius (his dresses are beautiful), there is a hierarchy of needs that must be taken care of in order for him to operate at the level required to make those dresses, and this is largely taken care of by the people living with him. It takes a village.
All in all, “Phantom Thread” is a great film about the weird but real relationship between Woodcock and Alma, with a great supporting performance put in by Manville. It breaks down a lion of a man into his bare components, only to build him back up again. Even the most stable, routinized and successful people among us can be broken down and exposed as not being as strong as they think or say they are. It is cruel for anyone to undergo such an exposition, but it can happen, and the breaking down and building up of Woodcock that happens in the film is fascinating to see.
Photo courtesy Focus Feature