Phantom Thread written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (Focus Features, Annapurna Pictures, Perfect World Pictures, R, 130 min)
Starring Vicky Krieps, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Lesley Manville.
When the topic of dignified work enters a discussion, Victorian Era seamstresses in the West End offer a case study in “how-not-to treat your workers.” Long hours and slight wages created harsh conditions and some early investigative journalism shone light on this situation, to the outcry of those reasonably minded.
One small side note from this revelation was the daily routines of these overworked women. Many, sewing stitches for hours on end, would continue the motions of sewing even after their shifts concluded.
This phenomenon earned the name the phantom thread, and it operates as a central metaphor for Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest work.
Demanding and Meticulous
Phantom Thread focuses on the demanding and meticulous Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis). A couture dress maker in London, Woodcock micro manages every aspect of the fashionable dresses he constructs for his well-to-do clientele. Every aspect of his life holds instrumental purpose to his ultimate goal of dress making.
His sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), manages operations, but for all her steely demeanor and professionalism, Woodcock views her as an employee just as much as he considers her family.
In his private life, he shuffles from lover to lover, using them as a muse until the river of inspiration runs dry.
As one lover fades from view, Cyril urges Woodcock to spend a weekend in the country. During a breakfast out in the town, Woodcock encounters Alma (Vicky Krieps), his server for the meal.
Instant infatuation sparks creativity and Woodcock sets his sights on a new muse.
Ebb and Flow of Relationship
Phantom Thread outlines the ebb and flow of this relationship, but where a standard romantic comedy softens reality into bliss, Paul Thomas Anderson sheds the spotlight on a toxic relationship.
The meticulous daily rhythms by which Woodcock lives do not translate to domestic fulfillment, and Alma quickly realizes her instrumental value to Woodcock’s goals, rather than finding intrinsic worth in partnership.
Here, Paul Thomas Anderson takes the story on an odd turn. While the narrative feels inventive and also classic, in a Greek tragedy sense, the toxic masculinity of the anti-hero is problematic. As the central character, the narrative drives by the decisions Woodcock makes. Even though his traits are awful and not worthy of replication, Woodcock’s role in the story requires agency for forward momentum. And with agency, Woodcock doesn’t truly suffer the consequences of his actions.
So, Phantom Thread, while masterful in its details, feels a little icky, when considering its implications. Paul Thomas Anderson makes the case for the stickiness of the repetitive actions taking hold of your life. Much like phantom stitches in Victorian England, Woodcock’s muscle memory traps him in a toxic form of masculinity, and even though Daniel Day-Lewis does his best to embody a character nobody would want to be, the story is still about Woodcock, to its detriment.
Verdict: 4 out of 5