The Phantom Thread That Binds Us

This article is a response to the impressions Phantom Thread left me with. I could watch it numerous times, and find more nuances and dynamics woven in to it, it’s that kind of film.

Who's in the driving seat? Daniel Day-Lewis & Vicky Krieps battle it out.

Phantom Thread is a sumptuous film to watch, exquisitely styled, beautifully acted, and wonderfully dark and eccentric. Set in the 1950’s it tells the story of Reynolds Woodcock, couturier to the rich and titled and head of the House of Woodcock. The impressions I focus on, are ‘the dance’ between the male and female leads, and the interplay between the feminine and masculine, as it manifests between Reynolds Woodcock and Alma, the young German woman who becomes his muse and lover. 

Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) works in the house he shares with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville),  both unmarried, and upholding the life they lived with their deceased mother. Woodcock in particular, evokes her spirit through his devotion to her. Alma’s arrival in his ritualistically ordered world provides the catalyst for the story, but sensing Alma’s growing attachment to him, Cyril warns her, ‘my brother feels cursed, that love is doomed for him’.

Alma (Vicky Krieps), moves from an unworldly young woman, to a beautiful muse in the glow of Woodcock’s  love, but she is also at odds with her new life. Image is integral to Woodcock, and the society he and Cyril inhabit, and their world is contrasted with Alma’s naturalness, appearing stilted through her eyes. During a dress fitting for a Royal Princess, Alma’s agitation and jealousy push her to break with decorum. Her face flushes as she awkwardly introduces herself to the beautiful Princess in an attempt to assert her place in Woodcock’s heart and household.

Vicky Krieps captures these different faces of Alma with intense feeling. She is strong, intelligent, and her love for the driven Woodcock pierces his focus and endears her to him. She is moulded by him, but in turn moulds him with her caring protective love. Importantly she is not happy to be a decorous companion and mannequin, she wants a relationship, and is equally driven and rebellious in her pursuit of it.

Mother love……

In an early scene Woodcock is breakfasting with Cyril and his current girlfriend and muse, who he chastises for offering him a pastry at breakfast. She leaves the room humiliated, and Cyril observes his girlfriend has gained weight and enquires if he would like her to ‘get rid of her’ . Woodcock was adored by his mother, she nurtured his creativity and continues to live posthumously in his heart and soul. His Mother Complex remains active as she reigns supreme in his psyche, limiting his ability to have a relationship with a real woman, although Woodcock prefers to see this as a curse. Her ambition for him and his success have come at the expense of his emotional development.

Woodcock epitomizes success, charm and sophistication, and his place within the prevailing social structure is secure. His female clientele go to him to have their bodies moulded to perfection, but if imperfection makes an appearance, Woodcock’s distaste is aroused and his sensitive balance disturbed. And when imperfection appears in a relationship, an impasse opens up that cannot be bridged.

Recovering from romantic disappointment, Woodcock meets Alma in the restaurant she  works in. He orders a substantial breakfast and arrogantly asks her to remember it from memory. Alma rises to the challenge, remembers it verbatim, and their mutual attraction is kindled. Anticipating he will ask her out, she has written her name down for him, addressing her note to, ‘The Hungry Boy’. I am careful not to give too much away, but where mother love has left the building, puddings and the pleasing indulgence of cream in porridge, soften the rather emotionally sterile world of the House of Woodcock.

It is the absence of maternal love that Alma sees and instinctively uses as her entry point into his emotional world. It is also the only form of the feminine other than the muse, the ideal women, but it’s a start. Alma’s demands disrupt Woodcock and unfold his need for emotional dependency. They act like the alchemic solvent on his emotional defenses, and create an opportunity for him to change. 

When Woodcock is convinced that Alma can take as good care of him as his mother did, he relinquishes her influence, and lets Alma supplant her hold, albeit to allow her to become his mother-wife. But at last, Woodcock can concede some control, and in that is the potential for relationship. What I really liked about Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is its courage, and that of the cast, to express the extremes of (a) relationship, exposing the infantile needs that live behind sophisticated adult facades.

If this is a portrait of an individual relationship, or an exploration of the politics of marriage, I don’t know. But if Daniel Day-Lewis revokes his decision to retire, and Paul Thomas Anderson decides to make Phantom Thread II (the sequel!) I would be interested to see if the roles Alma and Reynolds inhabit at the end of the film have become static, or if they were catalysts for a more balanced relationship.

Something to reflect on…

If you found the feminine and masculine theme has got you thinking, you might want to reflect on these questions. Before you do, try not to find an answer, be curious, and give yourself time to think and feel your way into them.

We all have masculine and feminine traits and qualities. What are they? (Maybe write them down). Are they in balance with each other? Do you live one quality more than another? Do you project qualities onto the people you know? Your partner, friends and colleagues, children?

Notice what your first response is. If you feel uncomfortable it may be because there is something you don’t want to see. Its natural and nothing to feel bad about, so see if you can ‘make room for it’, and importantly, don’t judge yourself.

 Elizabeth Heren 2018©