"Clothes make the man," Shakespeare tells us. Could we quibble with the truth of Shakespeare's statement? Perhaps. But one thing's for certain: Clothes certainly made Reynolds Woodcock.
The time: the 1950s. The place: glamour-addled London, where the city's grandest gowns are made in Reynolds' palatial apartments. He's high society's favorite dressmaker, serving Europe's most exquisite, most fashionable, most moneyed ladies. He's no mere designer: He's an artist, working not in marble or oil, but in silk and chiffon. His every bow or ruffle fits to form, every crease and stitch a beautiful brushstroke to clothe his human canvas.
Those who can't afford a Woodcock dress dream of wearing one; those who can sometimes blush when they do, feeling unworthy of it. One woman, spying Reynolds in a restaurant, comes by to pay her respects. She tells him her fondest wish is to be buried in one of his masterpieces. Reynolds smiles politely, accepts the compliment and gently encourages her on her way. After all, she says nothing that surprises him. His dresses are amazing, he knows. And so is he.
Every artist needs a muse, and Reynolds has had plenty. They come and stay for a while, sharing his sprawling London house with him and his sister, Cyril, whom Reynolds calls "my old so-and-so." These women serve as inspirations, perhaps even lovers for a time. But inevitably Reynolds' companions grow tiresome to him. Perhaps they begin to beg for too much attention, or they gather a bit of extra flesh in the middle, or they sip their tea too loudly, or they get crumbs in the butter dish. Their charm, like fashion itself, is fleeting. Soon, Reynolds and Cyril pack up each spent muse, wish her well and send her on her way, only to replace her with another.
Alma is next in line.
Reynolds discovers Alma while driving to his rural cottage, some miles away from London's bustle and blare. She serves him breakfast in a small inn by the road, writing on the bill, "For my hungry boy." He takes her to dinner, then to his cottage—asking her to strip down to her skivvies so he can dress her. Remake her in an image most pleasing … to him.
Soon, Alma's world is gobbled up by her hungry boy. He makes her fashionable—beautiful—and in return, she gives him what she says he most desired: "Every piece of me."
But Alma is not like Reynolds' other muses, to be taken off and hung out like a discarded dress. Reynolds' affections may turn to cold, cutting indifference; Cyril's serene eyes may turn to ice; but Alma won't give up her place in the house of Woodcock without a struggle.
We don't meet any heroes in Phantom Thread. But we can find a handful of qualities worth calling out here—even if those qualities are often alloyed by less-savory accoutrements.
Take, for instance, Reynolds' commitment to making quality dresses. Yes, his perfectionism and artistic bent make him a difficult person to live with—sometimes extraordinarily so. What makes him a great dressmaker also makes him not-such-a-great human being. But we can, at least, laud his commitment to his craft and his determination to give his wealthy clientele their money's worth. Indeed, the very best that money can buy.
Alma's affection for Reynolds also takes us down some murky roads, but her affection is real; she wants to care for him as much as she's able and allowed to.
Perhaps the most attractive character here is Reynolds' enigmatic "so-and-so," Cyril. She's a strong woman—so much so that she even stands up to the great Reynolds Woodcock on occasion. But she's also fiercely loyal to her brother and their shared business. While certain hardening-of-the-eyes moments suggest Cyril can be jealous of Reynolds' muses, she nevertheless selflessly serves him and the needs of their operation.
Reynolds says he made his mother's wedding dress largely alone, in part because of an old superstition suggesting that unmarried women who touched a wedding dress would never get hitched. (Cyril eventually helps her brother make the dress, but she never marries.) We hear about how Reynolds made a confirmation dress for a European princess. We see, briefly, the interior of a church.
Reynolds' life is almost literally wrapped around the female figure: Naturally, we see plenty of that figure.
When Reynolds first takes Alma home to his rural house, he has her disrobe to her underwear. He painstakingly and clinically eyes her figure. When Cyril arrives unexpectedly, he has her immediately sit down and note the measurements he takes of her, with the tape measure sometimes embracing intimate areas. It's not a scene that's intended to be particularly romantic or even sexual. Rather, it contrasts Alma's sensuousness with her vulnerability while Reynolds works with her, almost as if she were merely a slab of meat in need of some finer ingredients. Later, as he again works with her to design a dress, he casually mentions, "You have no breasts." When she apologizes, he adds, "[It's] my job to give you some … if I choose to."
The concept of the breast takes on a multilayered meaning here, serving not only as a sexual symbol but as one for motherhood. In Reynolds' mind, perhaps, there's some confusion between the two. He clearly misses his mother dearly and seems to long for mothering as much as he does for romantic attachment: In a vision of sorts, we see Reynolds' mother in the wedding dress he's made for her, and her breasts are partially visible through its diaphanous material. Alma's chest is also semi-visible through fabric at times as well.
Reynolds may not be the only one who harbors a certain incestuous affection. Cyril's seeming jealousy of Reynolds' "muses" hints that, perhaps, his sister longs to be the only real woman in Reynolds' life … though the implications of this longing remain veiled. Any suggestion that she may have romantic inclinations toward her brother remain just that—a suggestion.
Reynolds and Alma, for their part, definitely have an intimate relationship, though that intimacy occurs behind closed doors here. They kiss and hug, and each can be quite jealous of the other.
We see Alma and other women in shoulder-baring, curve-flattering gowns. A couple of them are seen in their underwear as they change (for a fashion show) or are undressed, sometimes forcibly. (More on that below.)
Reynolds designs a gown for a very wealthy client, then is forced to attend the engagement gala where she wears it. The woman gets very drunk, though, so much so that she has to be carried to her hotel room. Alma, looking on, is furious: "She can no longer act like this and be dressed by the house of Woodcock," she tells Reynolds. So inspired, the two storm up to her rooms, barge into her bedroom and physically strip the unconscious woman of her beautiful dress.
Reynolds grabs Alma fiercely at times. People are jostled and pushed during a New Year's Eve party.
Crude or Profane Language
We hear eleven f-words, about half a dozen uses of "h---" and three uses of the British profanity "bloody."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Characters drink wine with dinner. A woman, as mentioned above, drinks to incapacitating excess. Martinis are quaffed. Glasses of champagne are downed. Alma attends a raucous New Year's Eve party where, it would seem, plenty of folks have gotten quite drunk. We hear a reference to "cherry and lemon juice." Cyril smokes, as does a doctor.
Other Negative Elements
Reynolds can treat folks, including Alma, very inconsiderately.
[Spoiler Warning] Which brings us to a big-but-necessary reveal here. Alma and Reynolds have, quite literally, a sick relationship: Alma poisons Reynolds' food—not to kill him, but to make him sick so she can nurse him back to health. We see him vomit once, and he's ill for days as Alma mothers him and keeps almost everyone else out of his room. The ploy works: Reynolds, appreciating Alma's motherly devotion, proposes marriage, and the two are indeed wed. But when Reynolds begins to feel that he's made a huge mistake, Alma poisons his food again—this time telling him about it. "I want you flat on your back," she says. "Helpless. Open. With only me to help. … You need to settle down a little." Reynolds apparently agrees—gobbling up the rest of his food and submitting to days of sickness with Alma again thrown into the role of nursemaid.
Director Paul Thomas Anderson's work is, to be blunt, an acquired taste. Though the director is unquestionably talented, Anderson's most recent movies tend to be chilly, profane and troubling. From the apocalyptic Western There Will Be Blood to the unsettling, cult-themed reveal of The Master, Anderson doesn't seek to win his audience's affections as much as he wants to intrigue and vaguely repel them—even as he weaves a captivating story that's nearly impossible to shut off or shut down.
Phantom Thread, reportedly three-time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis' last film, is the most Paul Thomas Anderson movie by Paul Thomas Anderson I've ever seen. Like Reynolds' dresses, this drama is meticulously crafted, both covering and revealing vulnerable truths underneath. But it's unsettling, too. Even nauseating.
Set in the more refined, polite 1950s, Phantom Thread eschews 21st-century crass and overt carnality for a more subtle, genteel sort of depravity—affairs sequestered behind closed doors; unspoken-but-obvious illicit desires; the strange, ravenous yearnings of the fallen soul. Its problematic elements don't roar like a monster, but rather hiss.
Again, this is not meant to diminish the film as a film. Phantom Thread is built to make us uncomfortable. It does not seek to redeem what we see here, nor to condemn it. It only forces us to look at it, a collective eye at squinting voyeuristically through a cinematic keyhole.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Vicky Krieps as Alma; Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock; Lesley Manville as Cyril
Paul Thomas Anderson ( )
December 25, 2017
April 10, 2018