A longer read: Phantom Thread — the mother of all complexes

The expectation that goes with the release of a new Paul Thomas Anderson movie gets bigger and bigger every time. Ever since the acclamations for There Will Be Blood, the director has often found himself being touted (alongside one or two others) as the next heir to Kubrick. And it’s probably safe to assume Kubrick would be proud of him so far — as Anderson has successfully followed him in dealing with the darker, more tortured side of humanity whilst also seasoning with sardonic humour. With Anderson’s latest offering, Phantom Thread, it seems the late, great director’s traits and influence have come to bear, exhibiting why the protege may finally be about to enter into his master’s pantheon.

Phantom Thread sees Anderson resume his partnership with Daniel Day-Lewis, the star of his previous most critically acclaimed movie. Upon its completion, Day-Lewis shocked everyone including the director by revealing that it was to be his last film — commenting on Kimmel recently, Anderson quipped that it was “either because he had such a good time doing it he didn’t want to top it, or…it’s the other thing”. Day-Lewis, however, is notorious for having temperamental sabbaticals, almost as though trying to find his true vocation and expression in life — winning three Oscars for best actor and a further nomination for Phantom Thread still don’t seem to be enough to convince him.

Yet this second collaboration with arguably our generation’s best actor is almost as extraordinary as the first. Day-Lewis, meticulous in his method acting as ever, plays the obsessive and tortured dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (a name created by Day-Lewis). And as always with a PTA film, there is a lot going on: layers upon layers of meaning, metaphors and allusions subtly woven in, demanding a second viewing for their analysis and understanding — The Master set the bar for what Anderson was capable of in terms of creating deeply constructed filmic devices and multi-layered narratives, and Phantom Thread is no different.

We see fairytales, ghosts, quintessential Englishness, a love triangle, struggles for power, sadomasochism, mental health disorders and Hitchcockian devices, all imbued with an underlying feminism.  To say the movie is a simple love story — like the trailer almost made it out to be — would be the biggest understatement in cinema history. It’s clear that every scene and every word have meaning, from the cinematography of North Yorkshire’s Robin Hood Bay and the smearing 50s smog of Victorian dwellings, to the way Reynolds takes measured care of the words he speaks and those he secretly sews into his dresses.

PTA has revealed (despite the character of Reynolds being based on a French couture designer) that he set the film in England instead of Paris because it seemed far more exciting to do so. This certainly helps to achieve the crepuscular suspense and intrigue of a Hitchcock movie. He also admitted that he needed to tread carefully when invoking so much of a Hitchcockian feeling: “It’s a bit like saying you wanna make a record like the Beatles”. He recognises that it’s important to borrow but borrow obliquely, and this has become one of his most impressive feats so far: incorporating all his major influences from Kubrick to Hitchcock so tactfully.

The film’s Hitchcockian study is punctuated by Reynolds’ matriarchal sister, Cyril, played wonderfully by Lesley Manville (also earning herself an Oscar nomination). At first, we see her embody the typical Mrs Danvers character, offering the film’s first source of potential villainy, only to find she isn’t insidiously inclined at all but much more complex and caring. She runs the family business like a true martinet, directing affairs and offering counsel in their palatial home where the majority of the film takes place. The other dominant female in Reynolds’ life is Alma — played by the Luxembourgian Vicky Krieps. She also assumes many roles during the movie: artist’s muse, beast’s beauty, devious witch, rebellious teen, caring mother and loving wife. Her character, like that of Cyril’s, is complexly woven to intersect with the other two in a triangle of love, doting and power; at times, both women share Danveresque qualities, but after the film’s well-crafted denouement they begin to assume whole new personas.

Krieps has said that she “absolutely” considers Phantom Thread a “feminist movie”. One would assume with the main lead belonging to one of the greatest male actors of all time that the movie would be dominated by him — it isn’t, the women around Reynolds dominate both him and the screen. These hints of dominance and submission are constantly teased upon and jostled between the characters from the start, creating a subtext from the main narrative: an exploration of gender roles both socially and psychologically. Reynolds is a dressmaker who can be seen as a man objectifying and controlling beautiful women for his job and deep sexual needs, which is later contrasted by his intermittent need to be looked after, controlled and dominated by a woman who assumes a motherly role.

As the film progresses, we are left guessing who controls who. Which leads us to the other most powerful woman in this tale: Reynolds’ mother. While watching the struggle for control and affection in the threesome, we are given clues as to why Reynolds behaves and feels the way he does. The mystery to why he became a dressmaker in the first place, along with the nature of his sexual intentions towards Alma, is answered in the guise of allusions to his late mother; the trio may be fighting for power over each other, but it is the mother who dominates and permeates the pith of their relationships.

Reynolds’ Oedipal origins are revealed in a story about designing his first dress: one made for his mother, who is suggested, indirectly, to have died in it. His intense obsession with his work and macabre penchant for making dresses with personalised messages about his mother begin to suggest a whole host of paraphilias and fetishes; there is no question that the women allowed to get close to him are basically powerful, maternal substitutes — the contradistinction of the breakfast scenes between his first passive lover and the more rebellious Alma clearly illustrates his secret desire to be challenged and dominated.

In fact, the whole idea of the film came about when PTA succumbed to a bout of illness and was cared for by his wife. During his illness, he noticed how happy his wife was caring for him and how it brought an opening of sensual affection between them. This motherly domain of caring and nurturing is central to the movie, along with the theme of food, which is laced with sexual innuendo: Reynolds’ and Alma’s romance blossoms at a diner which includes an extremely debaucherous breakfast order; breakfast time is portrayed as sacrosanct; Alma asks the question “are you thirsty/hungry” numerous times before we see them climb the stairs; asparagus is the source of much frustration; and the very action of poisoning via mushrooms is a tortuous solace that becomes the only way of consummation.

With eating and nurturing being the trigger for sex, we also find that perfectionism and stress are triggers for depression. The title of the movie itself, referring to the deft technique acquired when skilled at sewing, also alludes to the ghoulish presence of his dead mother in his daily job. Whenever he completes or is in the midst of a job, he is prone to crashing into a state of miserable stupor — his mother is the reason for his profession and passion, but at the cost of experiencing frequent traumatic episodes yearning for her. And the mental complexities don’t stop there: there is clear evidence of OCD and chronic anxiety. His insistence on routine, control of triviality and eccentric way of working, all give the air of a tortured artist that is now a curmudgeon.

PTA was keen to explore this artifice of fashion design for the reason that it hadn’t really been done before, and it makes for an interesting take on the tortured ‘artist’ movie normally reserved for painters, musicians and writers. The need for an accurate representation of obsessive, artistic professionalism made Day-Lewis the obvious choice for the role. He, like Reynolds, is a typical obsessive with his job, always fully immersing himself into his work to the point of physical and mental exhaustion; he has shown himself to be second to none when channelling deep, disturbing complexes and illness, from his beginnings playing quadriplegic Christy Brown to the more recent egomaniacal Plainview.

Phantom Thread is clearly, therefore, an exploration into the insecurities of the human condition. It deals with insecurities not only from its main character but from that of society in general, especially women. Alma’s exposing measurement scene where Reynolds performs his duty with an eerie solemnity shows his controlling masculine ego. His remarks “you have no breasts — it’s my job to give you some, if I chose to” complete her humiliation.  Despite this, she reveals her physical insecurities to be alleviated by his control and the clothes he makes her wear: “in his work I become perfect, and I feel just right”.  Clothes represent a stronger identity, imbuing the wearer with a new unbridled confidence with which to hide their inner insecurities, much like how Reynolds hides his true feelings with his stoic work ethic; Woodcock clothing line is his name and identity, his strength against depression, where work and the oedipus complex are intertwined creating the mother of all complexes.

But it isn’t precisely all doom and gloom. As we have seen before with PTA movies, the injection of humour is an essential part. There are comedic scenes which arise from the disturbing nature of Reynolds’ complexes. As he carps at unwanted noise (scraping of toast, pouring tea) during breakfast and reacts ridiculously to Alma’s petulant retorts, you could almost imagine him as a Larry David type character. This helps to offer levity during the film’s navigation of its seamy themes and complex characterisations.

The film is also not without the director’s other regular feature — a Jonny Greenwood soundtrack. In his fourth collaboration with the Radiohead guitarist, he utilises Greenwood’s melancholic, dulcet arrangements to great affect where they practically accompany every scene and embody the movie’s forlorn existence. And Johnny seems to be well on board the PTA juggernaut, knowing exactly what to provide when scoring his movies; even he, in the third movement of the main theme Phantom Thread III, manages to evoke Kubrick with echoing drums reminiscent of Barry Lyndon’s signature track.

The references to Kubrick don’t stop there either. There’s a beautifully shot scene using Taxi Driver style dollies of Reynolds driving Alma in the English countryside, which is clearly meant as a nod to Clockwork Orange’s Derango 95. The cinematography, credited to PTA himself, uses Barry Lyndon’s filmed by candle light effect many times. The scene where Reynolds is bed ridden, also heavily reminiscent of 2001’s final death bed scene, is illuminated softly with the glow of natural candle night, reflecting exquisitely the shadows of his dead mother’s apparition — accompanied with Greenwood’s minimal symphony, it really is one of the finest scenes of a PTA movie.

Phantom Thread needs two viewings, as with most PTA films. After watching, and despite the big name of Daniel Day-Lewis, you find it’s really all about the women. He is surprisingly but refreshingly usurped by the feminism of its female ensemble, where the fusion of the themes of illness, subconscious desire and hidden anxiety create a discombobulating cacophony underpinned by the simple axiom: “It all comes back to your mother” — it seems, just like Paul Thomas Anderson says, people really do deal with illness in very different ways.

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