This may be a bit of a spoiler alert, but there’s a moment in Phantom Thread where Reynolds Woodcock sees a ghost. It’s not particularly frightening, though you could be forgiven for finding it unsettling. And while it may be startling and feel out of place at first, truthfully the scene fits thematically in Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest period drama, Phantom Thread. In almost no way could it be considered a horror movie, even if it does leave you with some of the same existential dread as the best horror does. On the contrary, where horror films are often bleak and find their scares in the absence of sound and light, Phantom Thread is very concerned with aesthetics. The colors are vibrant, the production design is perfect, and the cuisine… well, let’s just say someone should give the food stylist a raise.
So why, might you ask, does a movie so vivid and lush also feel lifeless enough to make room for a ghostly presence? It’s because Phantom Thread’s chief concern, above the immaculate details, is the people that populate its world. The characters, like the film around them, feel fully realized and rounded, while at the same time desolate, an empty people searching for a semblance of meaning. It’s in this juxtaposition where Phantom Thread thrives, tugging at both the pleasure centers of the brain and the deepest, meaning-filled parts of the soul.
‘Everything Is a Game’
I’ve often admired how Paul Thomas Anderson’s films — from the barren desert of There Will Be Blood to the chaotic, 1970’s stylings of Inherent Vice — feel especially lived in and inviting. They reach out to the viewer in a special way that holds your attention rapt, even when the characters seem distant or highly stylized. Phantom Thread follows suit, its warm designs and lavish comforts inviting us into House Woodcock.
Yet many of the film’s most endearing moments are also the coldest. On more than one occasion, Alma butters her bread or crunches her breakfast in a way that irritates Woodcock. During their first date, we watch idly while Woodcock dutifully fits Alma for a dress. And when referring to an old flame, Cyril coldly remarks, “She’s getting fat waiting for you to fall in love with her.” They all mark a film that finds a prickly comedy in taboos involving personal and emotional space.
But they also underscore an important character point, especially for Day-Lewis’ couturier: he’s clearly not at ease in his life of particular comforts. The notion is further exacerbated by his apparent disposal of muses, a line disrupted by the charismatic, if stubborn, Alma. Through much of the film, she acts as the audience’s lense into House Woodcock, a strange place whose routines are as rigid as its customers are wealthy. She sees the home, and its namesake, in need of some genuine warmth, pointing out the emptiness in a masterfully acted dinner scene between the film’s two leads. It’s a turning point in the film, one in which we see the effects of the home and its inhabitants wearing on Alma, battling with her simpler nature for control of her soul.
It’s a battle she loses. And by film’s end Alma is falling victim to the house’s cold charms as well, opting for the shell of a relationship rather than something life-giving.
‘An Air of Quiet Death’
Of course, the chill of House Woodcock, along with its eery delights, wouldn’t be nearly as compelling without a trio of spectacular performances. Phantom Thread has always carried the stigma of “Daniel Day-Lewis’ last movie,” but it’s a distinction the film quickly sheds on the strength of his performance. In characteristic Day-Lewis fashion, he disappears into the role of Reynolds Woodcock, a feverish dressmaker. It’s not as rangey a performance as There Will be Blood, but just as impressive. Day-Lewis is known for his commitment to his own method, and it once again shows in his intimate familiarity with the curious lifestyle of the couturier. His quiet passion and loud fussiness give us a semblance of empathy for a man so committed to his craft, but also keep us curious as to the inner-workings of his brilliance. Perhaps it’s a coincidentally autobiographical performance for a revered artist equally known for his commitment to private life.
But Day-Lewis isn’t the only actor giving a powerhouse performance. Lesley Manville stares him down many times as the “old so-and-so,” Reynold’s sister Cyril. Manville’s Woodcock is perhaps even colder in demeanor than her brother, but over the course of the film, she flips the script on Reynolds, offering a perfect foil to the particular designer. Her chilly countenance stems from a love and commitment to her brother, one that even dips into a sense of sibling responsibility. Cyril recognizes her brother’s faults as a symptom of his brilliance while trying to manage their home in a way of which he’s incapable.
Similarly, Vicky Krieps portrays a contrasting picture of the Woodcock house, one more given to open warmth, affection, and spontaneity. Krieps is marvelous as Alma, a girl whose past is never revealed, making her an even more complex and unpredictable character as the state of her relationship wears down her moral boundaries and emotional stability. What does remain though, is her commitment to Woodcock, making her a worthy opponent for his affections across from the proven commodity that is Cyril. It’s a “love triangle” of the most innocent, yet sinister, nature — one that is purposefully sexless while feeling as urgent as any three-way character dynamic in recent memory.
And while all three of these make up a masterful trio, Paul Thomas Anderson crafts House Woodcock in a way that makes it feel like a character all on its own. It’s grey natural London lighting and its warm shadows give substance to Woodcock’s “quiet death” comments in the film’s final act, almost as if the house and its inhabitants are constantly feeding off each other to create a toxic atmosphere.
‘A Very Long Shadow’
Certainly, one of the biggest takeaways from Phantom Thread is how beautiful it is. From the score, to the costumes, to sumptuous looking food (sorry, I had to mention it twice), it seeps into your soul, making you wish you were living in the world Paul Thomas Anderson has created.
And yet, while the beauty feels real, so too does the “quiet death.” And upon close examination, it’s not hard to see what causes it all. PTA’s characters have always been complex character studies on some of our base characteristics as humans. In Phantom Thread, that base characteristic is our powerful bent toward idolatry. Reynolds has his work; Cyril has her brother; and Alma has the ideal relationship, one of family and warmth and comfort.
None of these things are inherently wrong or sinful. We should place a healthy amount of dedication to our work, our families, and our relationships. All these things are good and Scriptural in a clear and inviting sense. And we see the benefits of each character’s commitment played out in Phantom Thread. The Woodcock’s business thrives because of Reynolds’ commitment to craft. It runs efficiently because of Cyril’s commitment to keeping their home. And Alma appropriately brings a kindly presence to an otherwise emotionally distant place.
But if House Woodcock represents anything in this haunting tale, it’s that of an unhealthy respect for our desires, an idolatry that consumes all else. It’s why the film’s surprising final minutes are so disturbing as they reveal the depths of brokenness that obsession brings. We’re not meant to marvel by the film’s conclusion; we’re meant to be disgusted. It’s why all the warmth in Alma’s heart and all our admiration for Reynolds’ artistry are stripped away in the end. Because left to their own devices, they are nothing more than empty dresses, in lack of some soulful woman to fill them.
And it’s why that haunting, lonely spectre in the middle of the film feels so at home despite it’s lively surroundings. Because House Woodcock is a sham, a ruse… a game. It’s a house full of death, its insides laced with pretty things and the trappings of wealth in order to mask the stench of decay.