‘Phantom Thread’: What the Beautiful Dresses Are Hiding Underneath

By Tracy Wang

Said to be Daniel Day-Lewis’ last film, ‘Phantom Thread’ dives into the life of Reynolds Woodcock, a fictional famed dressmaker, in the post-war 1950s, and unravels his artistic life of making dresses, finding muses, and abusing those around him.

The renowned dressmaker (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his sister, Cyril Woodcock (Lesley Manville), work together in making dresses that showcase the style of the House of Woodcock and operating the business. Serving only those of the higher class (royal family, film stars, dames etc.), Reynolds and Cyril have created a pattern of life in which Cyril organizes everything around her demanding brother who requires solitude and absolute quiet when he designs. Never married, Reynolds constantly looks for muses who inspire him, but asks them to leave when they start to ask for too much. Soon, he finds yet another muse, Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps), a working class waitress.

As he begins to design more dresses based on Alma, she becomes to feel much more confident with her body, and she is immediately drawn to the charming Reynolds. However, the life of beautiful dresses and a blooming romance quickly turns out to be a life of nonstop restrictions and spoken or unspoken rules set by Reynolds. All the rules seem to be sugar-coated with temporary bursts of romantic moves from Reynolds, but deep inside, Alma is becoming unhappy and unsatisfied about their relationship status. So after a failed attempt of a romantic dinner together, Alma resolves to gain his love by feeding him poisonous mushrooms she picked. Will her attempt succeed in rekindling his feelings for her? Who will be the abused and the abusive one?

At surface level, ‘Phantom Thread’ takes on a stereotypical portrayal of an artist who is enigmatic, sensitive, quiet, and most importantly, someone who requires much solitude and support from family and friends. In the film, the character of Reynolds checks off all these qualities, but it takes the role of an artist even further by making him into an abusive artist. From indirective or direct language styles and actions, Reynolds abuses and controls Alma by belittling her taste for clothes, demanding her to eat her breakfast silently, and only allowing her to go into his room at certain times. Though she is supposed to be the closest to him (other than his sister Cyril), she is constantly shut out of his room, his time, and his heart, when he needs to focus on his dresses.

Interestingly, the film takes a dramatic turn when the abused (Alma) becomes the abusive one. After her many efforts in becoming the dominant and powerful one in the household, Alma finally decides to use a much-more-blatant way of abuse on Reynolds, that is to feed him poisonous mushrooms in order to make him realize how much he needs Alma. As she nurses him back to health, he suddenly takes on the attitude of a passionate lover who cannot live without her. Everything seems to be returning to normal, but director Paul Thomas Anderson takes us on yet another turn when we are revealed that Alma and Reynolds continue to abuse each other in their enigmatic relationship.

This film can be said to be one of the best in its original score by Jonny Greenwood, its stunning and yet elegant period dresses, and its main actor Daniel Day-Lewis; its scenes are filled with lyricism and metaphors. At one point in the start of the film, all the dressmaker assistants walk in a file up the many flights of stairs, as Reynolds looks on, and walks in the opposite direction from them. This scene successfully showcases the grandeur of the Household of the Woodcock, and how long and hard it is for anyone to really reach Reynolds on a personal level. But besides these award-worthy elements, what does this film show or tell us?

Enigmatic seems to be the best word to describe the film; the whole film is as mysterious as the characters of Alma and Reynolds, their way of interacting with each other, and the way Reynolds depends much more on his sister than on his romantic interest (the tension among Cyril, Reynolds, and Alma is the most interesting and bizarre). Under the gorgeous dresses, and the expert cinematography, ‘Phantom Thread’ is a film about abuse in disguise. Similar to the mysterious feel of the title, we are all entangled in the phantom thread of the mastery of the scenes and score that is beautiful and fulfilling for the eye and ear, but in the end of the day, we can be somewhat lost in the meaning of the film.