Film in Review: Springes to catch Woodcocks

Paul Franz

That the desire for total control can conceal a desire for total powerlessness will remain a mystery only to those who have forgotten the meaning of “all or nothing.” The first desire is one that auteurist writer-director P. T. Anderson might be presumed to know, and Phantom Thread, his highly compelling seventh feature, is a movie that remembers. Set in a 1950s London both lavish and spare, it captures the rich textures of a bygone world of high fashion, yet sounds a deeper note than the expected satire. At once highly cinematic and a total actor’s picture, offering all the satisfactions of the classic Hollywood melodrama, it tells its story mainly through the extraordinary subtlety of its three leading performances, as captured by the director’s own 35mm photography. Such cohesion is the more essential, however, for sustaining a deeper tension. For, no less than a love story, or a film about an artist and his muse, it is one whose epigraph could be the words spoken by its heroine (Vicky Krieps) to its anti-hero (Daniel Day-Lewis) as they sit by the fire of his country house the evening after they meet: “If you want to have a staring contest with me, you will lose.” It is to be a contest fraught with peculiar ambiguity–since what does it mean when one party willingly concedes?

There are, fittingly, two beginnings. The first opens the film. Shot in three-quarter closeup, slightly from below, a youngish woman speaks to someone offscreen: “Reynolds has made my dreams come true.” The second, some ten minutes later, launches its plot. In it, a somewhat older man sits at a favorite corner of a favorite restaurant. Beside him, where she was waiting when he arrived, sits his sister and business manager, about the same age. He is handsome and well dressed as ever, though also a bit haggard, perhaps more from the letdown after accomplishment than mere fatigue. “I have an unsettled feeling,” he tells her, then adds, “I’ve been having the strangest memories of Mama lately. Coming to me in my dreams, smelling her scent. The strongest sense that she’s near us, reaching out towards us.” Though he claims to find this comforting rather than “spooky,” his words trouble his sister–enough to make her suggest a change of plans. He will head to the country house that night, she will follow the day after. And so it is only a dissolve cut and a night drive, ferried along by Jonny Greenwood’s rippling score, before Reynolds Woodcock finds himself in the sun-washed breakfast room of a country inn: still a bit battered, but refreshed and changed, and one whom the chance encounter could not find in better appetite.

What happens next–after he locks eyes with the waitress who stumbles carrying a tray to a nearby table–is neither the first nor the last blatant cliché Phantom Thread as if magically redeems. The spell remains unbroken for the rest of the scene, which mainly consists, to be sure, of the transmission and reception of what comes to seem Reynolds’s uniquely elaborate order. The secret lies most obviously in the performances, though it must also have something to do with breakfast, the meal most associated with mere routine, yet also–especially the big breakfast—most able to give the habitual the excitement of the fresh start. Not for the last time, Alma proves herself to Reynolds by knowing what he wants: first by remembering, but soon, before the end of breakfast, by anticipating his desires. What he does not know is that before long she will be ministering to wishes he would never articulate and perhaps not recognize as his.

By this point we have already learned a fair bit about Reynolds Woodcock, chief couturier of London’s (fictional) House of Woodcock, catering to a clientele of the highest society, domestic and foreign. And we have also, we now realize, learned something about Alma, whom we recognize as the woman who spoke proudly in the opening frame of having made a gift of herself to “the most demanding man.” The intervening scenes of the House of Woodcock’s morning ritual bear out Alma’s characterization, their slightly queasy comedy providing a foretaste of the film’s seductive, troubling pleasures. These include those of a not-quite-benign regimentation, as well as of that emotional parsimony classically associated by Americans with the English, which must have partly inspired the setting of Anderson’s first film outside the United States–indeed, his first set primarily outside California.

Though our marvel at these intricate operations is heightened by the prospect that they will soon be thrown off-kilter, our primary impression of the House of Woodcock remains one of a delicate balance of authority, in which Reynolds has ceded power (and hence responsibility) to his sister and manager Cyril as the gladly tendered price of undisturbed control over his immediate sphere. The regularity of his life–barring all but his own caprices and those of his clients–is created to produce things that are beautiful, and the dependency he accepts is meant to cloak him from its other, more unpleasant forms, of which the patronage of difficult and disappointed women and the “chic” demands of the market are only the most obvious. “I think it’s the expectations and assumptions of others that cause heartache,” Reynolds will confide to Alma as they sit by the fire after their first dinner together, and we know what he means: it is others’ expectations and assumptions about him that cause them heartache, a heartache that pains him to the extent he allows it to enter his awareness. Fortunately for him, this experience, inasmuch as it threatens his work, is one from which Cyril has likewise determined to shield him.

This is not mere self-serving delusion. The film never suggests that Reynolds Woodcock is less than a consummate artist. Proof of this comes from the gorgeous costumes by Mark Bridges (which also make up the highly convincing 1950s mise-en-scène), though Anderson’s camera wisely does not linger on them, as if thereby to emphasize what is merely matter-of-fact. Likewise mercifully sparing of the usual montage sequences of the craftsman at work, the movie shows how work nags at Reynolds when he is away from it briefly, and how some form of minor, ongoing activity–sketching or measuring–fills the edges of his day and reduces his sleep almost to nil. What is left over from dressmaking also seems somehow an aspect of it. This is mainly affairs: affairs that end with the mildly stoic gratification of both parties when pursued with Reynolds’s aristocratic clients, and with the harsh disappointment of the soon-to-be-former mistresses and models who wait patiently for him to redirect his attention their way, and who can, with particular cruelty, likewise be dispatched with a dress. (“I’ll give her the October dress, if that’s all right,” Cyril tells Reynolds, sealing the deal on the latest dismissal.)

Yet the film would hardly absorb our interest as it does if it remained confined to such austere daily satisfactions and cruelties. Reynolds Woodcock’s task is undoubtedly erotic, yet not in the way a superficial understanding of male artistry, or of fashion, might lead us to expect. The erotics of his gaze, for one thing, have little to do with what we ordinarily call “objectification.” Rather, they tend toward the reciprocal gaze of secret sharers. Beyond Reynolds’s imagination and skill as a couturier, beyond the shrewd business management of Cyril, the House of Woodcock’s fantastic success surely depends on its chief designer’s capacity to elicit and serve desires of which its clients are embarrassed or mildly ashamed. Once disclosed, these are, of course, only pretend shocking–in one comic scene, near the middle of the film, Reynolds elicits from a Belgian princess her wish to have “the most beautiful wedding dress in the world,” perhaps even, he prompts, “the only wedding dress ever made!”–but this is part of the charm. Indulging such fantasies both renders them harmless and puts them in their place, exposing the vagueness to which only the couturier can give form. Though the dependence of the customer on the provider should not be overstated, within its own sphere it is real. “It will give me strength,” one aristocratic client pronounces after trying on a gown for a state occasion. And it is here that we grasp Reynolds’s most authentic and subtlest power: that of giving or withholding the power that is his to confer.        

What the clients of the House of Woodcock seek, after all, is to be visible, beautiful–on terms that both are and aren’t their own. When, in an early scene, Reynolds paces back and forth while his assistants put the new dress on Lady Henrietta Harding, his decorum in waiting for the woman who has (we infer) been his lover, whose measurements he has taken, whose body he has vicariously handled in designing and making the dress, heightens our sense of the nature of their exchange. Even after she emerges from behind the curtain, skeptical but trusting, testing his reactions and those of the others present before putting on her glasses and inspecting herself in the mirror, he holds himself aloof. When he finally steps in close to adjust her bodice, it is in a way that reinforces the sense of a secret knowledge between them, one that makes her a collaborator in the construction of her public beauty—though with a sense, too, of that beauty as something apart, to be approached only with proper trepidation.

There can be no doubt that this intimacy and devotion–seeking it, cultivating it–lies near the heart of Reynolds’s interests. And yet, merely to know one has been admitted to an intimacy is not necessarily to be certain what it is. We know, because Reynolds tells Alma at their first dinner, that he inserts “secrets” into the clothes he makes (“coins, words, little messages,” like the apotropaic “never cursed” sewn into a wedding gown) but not whether such messages are addressed to the wearers or hidden from them. We have reason to think from Reynolds’s early revelation to Cyril and from the many confidences he promptly makes to Alma–about how he keeps a lock of his mother’s hair stitched in the breast of his coat, about his devotion to his mother, who taught him his trade, about his being “a confirmed bachelor,” fated never to marry–that his artistic calling and his ways of relating to women are both somehow bound up in the earliest intimacy of all. But even this candor is double-edged, since what Reynolds’s forthrightness seems meant to produce, if nothing so crude as a contract, is a baseline understanding: what you see is what you get. And so when Reynolds and Alma first sleep together (some time after her arrival, and only after she makes what, given her name–Alma, the nurse, the nutrix–is a fairly outrageous first move, “You look thirsty”), it can only momentarily surprise us that he pulls her into his bedroom rather than entering hers. By admitting her into his privacy–just as, on their first meeting, he lets her into his confidence–he preserves a space to which he can consign her when he next wants to be alone, as Alma will discover the next time she knocks on his door. He is, predictably, busy, at work on his latest designs.

There is, then, in Reynolds’s erotic imagination, for all its nuanced playfulness, something reductive, repetitious, inert. (With his typical flair for names–who could forget Boogie Nights’ Dirk Diggler?–Anderson has endowed his latest hero with a surname suggesting neither extreme potency nor its opposite, so much as a peculiar numbness, though we might also think of the drably plumaged woodland bird, proverbially stupid and easy to catch.) Yet if Reynolds’s eroticism aligns him with everything immobile and fixed, it is only so as to emphasize Alma’s external impetus. To be sure, Alma first presents herself under the guise not of initiative but of chance: the miraculously encountered thing that proves itself surprisingly and gratifyingly responsive to the one who spots and adroitly plucks it. Little wonder, then, that the film associates her, conventionally, with flowers–the flower with which she decorates her signature when she hands Reynolds her number on a receipt (though she had written it before he asked her) and those she will later embroider while he reads by the fire. But if Alma willingly identifies herself with chance things to be handled with delicate gratitude (“Whatever you do, do it carefully,” she instructs Reynolds, early in their affair), she will also–in one of the movie’s several outlandish recourses to gothic melodrama, with its alternate repertoire of female archetypes–draw upon the darker powers of the earth, the mysterious poisons derived from hidden things: the traditional knowledge of witches, even if picked up, in this instance, not from antique lore but from a field guide in a country kitchen. Alma’s increasing agency is what gives the film its dialectic of initiative and inertia, however much her half-tragic triumph involves her making a pact with the latter.

Of course, Alma is also the recipient of a gift, the gift of being seen: beginning with when Reynolds spots her in the restaurant, then when he takes her on as the House of Woodcock’s chief model. Reynolds’s cruelty consists more obviously in his forgetting than in his domination of others, and it is not hard to see his generosity as that cruelty’s converse. So when he tells Alma, when first taking her measurements, “You have no breasts,” before adding, “It’s my job to give you some–if I choose to,” even this should not be mistaken for simple objectification as much as an advance reminder of where gratitude is owed. Alma is grateful to Reynolds; before she met him, she tells her interlocutor in the narrative frame, she never really liked herself (“I thought my shoulders were too wide, my neck was skinny like a bird, that I had no breasts”). But Alma’s sense of being seen is not exhausted by these outward things, and the gift she yearns to give Reynolds is not meant to draw his outward attention merely (which would, anyhow, be to pay him in his own coin), but one that will bind them together fully, and whose end will be, as she puts it, simply, “to know him.”

If Alma begins by showing herself equal to Reynolds’s demands (“No one can stand as long as I can”), she proceeds to a more flattering identification with his purposes when, in a brutally comic scene, she acts as his goon, bursting into the room of a client who has disgraced the clothier to demand back the dress. This scene presents the film’s comic brutality in its broadest form; its subtler variant will soon occur in the full-bore assault of petulant passive aggression by which Reynolds manages to ruin Alma’s next attempt at surprising him. Yet this turns out to be merely the prelude to Alma’s much more resolute, outrageous, and active aggression, with its unlikely and satisfying variant on the Hollywood redemption through violence motif. Elaborate set pieces recur in Anderson’s filmography–think of the operatic showdown in There Will Be Blood, briefly yielding the pop culture catchphrase “I drink your milkshake.” But that film can come to seem at best impressively demented, ultimately offering no more significant revelation than that one bad man previously ripped off another. Nothing in it or the director’s earlier work prepares us for Phantom Thread’s showdown in a country-house kitchen over a steaming mushroom frittata, in which looks alone move from suspicion to questioning to recognition to an acceptance and mischievous complicity that alters the balance between the characters by laying bare what was long implicit within it but Alma alone intuited: Reynolds’s desire not to die but to be reborn again and again, and always in her arms.

The film that arrives at this sublimely grotesque wish fulfillment covers a considerable tonal range, one that would have been impossible were it not for the three extraordinary performances by Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, and Lesley Manville that are its spine. In this above all Phantom Thread marks a continuity with and development beyond Anderson’s previous work. Unusually strong performances, often from unlikely sources–think Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds, and Adam Sandler–have distinguished his films from the start. This is no less true of his 1996 debut, Hard Eight, an otherwise derivative neo-noir mashup about equal parts Mamet and Tarantino with maybe a splash of Lynch, than of Boogie Nights, his 1997 breakout epic about the 35mm porn industry. Like its successor, 1999’s Magnolia, Boogie Nights is emphatically an ensemble piece, a mode that remains fundamental to Anderson’s filmmaking, even if he seemed for a time to have played it out. Magnolia, his most ambitious experiment in this regard, appears in retrospect as an exemplary instance of the 1990s multiplot film, sounding out the genre’s limits even as it fails to quite transcend them. Spinning out the implications of the fictitious TV quiz show at its center, “What Do Children Know?” it presents a society (that is, broadly, middle- and upper-class white Californian) suffering a kind of dull, nameless ache, and all but hungering for an event that would catalyze its maybe not so disparate experiences into a single, unified narrative of pain. Manifesting itself cinematically as a search after formally unifying devices, this yearning resorts at times to such crude expedients as having all the characters take part in a single, semi-diegetic song, or, attesting most vividly to the turn of the century’s inability to imagine social togetherness achieved otherwise than via a sudden external cataclysm, a benign plague of frogs.

Anderson’s films of the next decade evidently saw fit to dispense with this formal problem, preferring to focus on singular, driven, often megalomaniacal male characters, whose outward grandiosity is the brittle converse of a suppurating inner wound. Were Magnolia to have been made in the 2000s, Tom Cruise’s pickup artist stands out as the obvious candidate for such canonization, which leads from Adam Sandler’s loser protagonist of Punch-Drunk Love (like Phantom Thread’s Woodcock, a man living among women), to There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis), to 2012’s sprawling The Master, where he is split into Philip Seymour Hoffman’s L. Ron Hubbard avatar and Joaquin Phoenix’s disciple. Yet while this trend might seem to have been reversed in 2014’s digressive stoner detective story, Inherent Vice (adapting the novel by Pynchon), countervailing tendencies were there all along, especially in The Master, whose near two-hander could not quite edge out strong performances by Laura Dern and a diamond-hard Amy Adams.

From this perspective, Phantom Thread starts to look like a film that has found the right scale. Ostensibly centered on yet another obsessive male protagonist, it might more properly be considered an ensemble of three. Of the principals, Manville, best known as the veteran of numerous ensemble collaborations with Mike Leigh, has the most limited role as the film’s highly dignified comic foil, yet shrewdly conveys with the slightest twitch or tilt (or lack thereof) of lip and head how Cyril, long settled into the role of Reynolds’s enabler, increasingly gives vent to long-simmering exasperation. Day-Lewis’s performance as Reynolds Woodcock has, like Manville’s, been justly praised. While particular attention has been paid to the extensive preparation he brought to this, as to his previous roles (an apprenticeship with the New York City Ballet’s costume department, replicating an entire Balenciaga dress for his wife, and so on), what sticks in the mind is an entire deportment: the nearsightedness, the slight stiffness and stooped gait that Reynolds surely passes off, in the right contexts, as gallant aloofness but which also bespeak the long hours from adolescence on devoted to his trade. Though he shares few outward traits with There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview, Reynolds Woodcock is like him in being exceedingly tense, even when relaxed, and Day-Lewis gets particular mileage out of the grinding of teeth, the clenching and unclenching of jaw muscles we didn’t know existed, as life conspires to put Reynolds through his paces.

Vicky Krieps’s work as Alma might be the most extraordinary. Displaying the same unlikely and intense combination of naturalness and subtlety that she brought to Christoph Reiner’s 2015 short Pitter Patter Goes My Heart and her role as Jenny Marx in Raoul Peck’s unlikely 2017 biopic The Young Karl Marx, Krieps animates her character with an inner knowledge that conveys much about which the script only hints. Life, we can infer, has compelled Alma to say yes to things, and her relationship with Reynolds depends on her saying yes. Krieps’s neutral expression in playing her is a kind of alert, watchful blankness, and when some semi-parsible reaction floats up in it, we sense Alma standing guard between herself and her surroundings, determining whether what breaks the surface will be, say, the smile that is exacted, the smile that searches for a response, or the open smile that has determined her trust was not misplaced. Even when Alma is humiliated, or when a trapdoor falls out from under her expectations, the keynote of the character and the performance remains a steely self-respect fully compatible with the openness and vulnerability that are also to become Alma’s inexorable demand.

The demands placed on the performer are the stronger for what might seem a flaw of the film’s construction, Alma’s lack of a detailed backstory. For there is a mystery about Alma–she seems not to have known her mother and speaks with an accent (doubtless reflecting Krieps’s own Luxembourgish origins) that sometimes sounds German, sometimes French–and this can indeed instill the sense that Phantom Thread is Reynolds’s story, not hers. Once Alma has symbolically installed herself, in one fell swoop, as both Reynolds’s wife and mother, it even has a certain logic: since what child knows the hidden wounds of its parents, being in all likelihood itself the wound or the effort to mend it? But Alma is not a blank onto which just anything can be projected. Or so the film’s secondary male character, Dr. Hardy, learns when, flirting with the new bride at a dinner party, he tries to coax her into dragging her recalcitrant husband out to a popular New Year’s ball. “You’ll have the time of your life,” he promises her; at which her smile suddenly drops, her neck stiffens, and she asks him, point-blank: “How do you know how my life has been?” It is not the first time Alma makes her imperfect command of idiomatic English an occasion to speak more rather than less directly, and the young doctor–who will later be identified as Alma’s questioner in the frame narrative, and in this sense a proxy for the film’s audience–is forced to admit he does not know.

More might be said about this moment, including about the quick glance Alma casts across the long table at her husband before answering, which evokes the intimacy we have acquired with Alma and Reynolds thus far, even as it reminds us how slender is the knowledge on which it is based. Our identification here is likely to be at least divided between Alma and Hardy, and in this derives from the film’s subtlest formal trick–the never quite stable relationship between Alma’s narration and the actions we see on screen. Sometimes slight, this gap widens at the film’s crisis, when we can be quite sure the events we are witnessing are not what Alma is telling her interlocutor. At the end, however, when narration and image click into sync, the effect is not to ratify but to cast doubt on Alma’s fantasy of perfected happiness. Setting aside our skepticism about the likelihood of Reynolds’s becoming quite the loyal husband and father, what must give us pause is how her vision of a future time, when “all our lovers and children and friends come back,” draws us back to the unknown past. For if we have some sense who it is that haunts Reynolds, of Alma’s past friends or lovers or–for all that we know–children, we can only say, “Who are these?” Despite Alma’s claim to have given “every piece of me,” it is Reynolds whom the film presents in full–with the effect, as it were, of our having taken his measure. Alma, by remaining beyond its scope, exempts herself from its judgement.

To these mysteries may be added certain puzzles. Among them are the hints, which never rise to the level of subplot, about the historical background, as when Reynolds tells Alma about a fine lace smuggled “out of Antwerp, before the war,” or when a press scrum grills an heiress about smuggling passports to European Jews (something they appear to regard as scandalous). When Reynolds tosses delirious on his bed and has a vision of his mother, in what is perhaps the uncanniest in-camera apparition since Christ appeared to Harvey Keitel in Abel Ferrara’s 1992 Bad Lieutenant, there is a certain resemblance between the woman standing silent at the foot of the bed and Day-Lewis’s own mother, the actress Jill Balcon, daughter of the Latvian Jewish film producer Michael Balcon. This is not the only suggestion of something overdetermined in the star performer’s relationship to this 1950s English milieu, and it is possible to imagine some version of the film (perhaps the same one at an earlier stage of development) in which the European background, and its links to Alma, would have been clearer. What is far from clear is that the result would have made for a better film.

Something similar might be said of Phantom Thread’s other conspicuous overdetermination–its dependence on Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca as its primary template. This relationship is highly complex, involving something like the comprehensive ingestion and transformation of the original film, transposing elements from the end to the beginning, and promoting incidental details into central motifs. Yet if it amounts to more than simple allusion, it also amounts to far less, and for the same reason–since the conspicuousness of the borrowings renders them trivial, mitigating dependency by foregrounding it. By clustering near Phantom Thread’s beginning, the most overt such echoes and witty transpositions (as of the aristocratic house of Manderley into the fashion House of Woodcock, and the deceased former wife into the mother) add a layer to Reynolds’s early confidences to Cyril and Alma, as if this blatant series of revelatory non sequiturs in the film’s second act were meant as a tip-off that its drama is not to lie in tracing mysteries to their source.

Yet the matter will tend to nag at us, not least because of an additional, highly overt quotation from Hitchcock, which comes from a different film. Though unemphatically placed near the beginning of the scene depicting the House of Woodcock’s spring fashion show, the shot of Reynolds peering at Alma with his eye pressed to a peephole backstage lasts just a little too long, its shadows contrasted just a little too heavily with the otherwise naturalistic lighting, to avoid calling to mind Anthony Perkins’s Norman Bates spying on Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane undressing in Psycho. It is an allusion, then, to one of cinema’s most iconic scenes of sexual voyeurism, the prelude to one of its most iconic scenes of misogynistic violence–and yet no sooner made than swept aside in the hustle and bustle of costume changes in lucid morning light.

As a random cinematic flourish, this seems peculiarly misjudged and seriously risks destabilizing the film–even if we take it, as I think we should, as a particularly troubling red herring. Against what makes the allusion suggestive—essentially, the power of obscene suggestion itself—must be set all that makes it inapposite. Reynolds Woodcock is, after all, not spying voyeuristically on a woman undressing, but straightforwardly inspecting–possessively, to be sure–clothed models displaying his wares. Far more significantly–and, apart from any allusion, what makes the scene pivotal in the film’s narrative–is that Alma senses him looking, looks back, and experiences evident delight in being seen.

As one of those moments that seals the protagonists’ fates, perhaps for all eternity, this exchange of looks (if it is an exchange; we are not shown Reynolds seeing her seeing him) crystallizes the film’s fascinating uncertainty of tone. Where Anderson’s most compelling recent work traded on contrasts between wide-open spaces (the desert, the sea) and spaces of dark enclosure (the mine, the ship’s hold), each with its own kind of comfort and menace, Phantom Thread is a film almost exclusively of interiors. Yet despite or because of the plot’s gothic overtones, Anderson mostly avoids gothic flourishes at the visual level. Beyond a brief series of ominous interior shots of Reynolds’s country mansion as he and Alma first pull up to it–empty kitchen, empty bed, and, held for an anxious second longer, empty attic studio presided over by a solitary female dressmaker’s torso–the film’s look tends rather toward a pleasurable delimitation than an obsessive narrowing of attention. Daylight is typically that grayish morning light cascading down into the House of Woodcock’s spare and cleanly London row house, while the night scenes typically convey a well-worn coziness, whether that of the favorite restaurant booth or the seat by the country fire. Phantom Thread’s darkness is not murderous (though Alma comes close), but a thing of intimacy, dependency, and sickness, of whatever exposes the weakness and limitation of the individual, artist or otherwise. A film about secrets, it is one that tantalizingly invites and warns against reading from the margins, against allowing daylight purposes to remain haunted by what is “cursed” and obscure, as if the latter gave them their final meaning. “Never cursed” might amount to never being born. No less than darkness, an elusive daylight clarity is what beguiles in this unsettling, captivating film.