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Paul Thomas Anderson's Seamless Phantom Thread

An Air of Quiet Death - Paul Thomas Anderson's Seamless Phantom Thread



"There is an air of quiet death in this house - and I don't like the way it smells."
- Reynolds Woodcock.


On the surface, Perfect Thread is concerned with issues of creativity, confrontation, and losing control - control of our emotions, control in our relationships, and especially control during times of conflict. It is as much about the peril involved in obsessive love, the invisible process of suture (designing, sewing, stitching, and editing), and hidden messages buried deep within the subtext, as it is with the pleasure to be derived from haute couture, fine dining, racing down country lanes in a magnificent maroon Bristol 405, and above all the Big English Breakfast.

“I can’t begin my day with a confrontation,” says Reynolds Jeremiah Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), the celebrated fashion designer, who lives and works in a tranquil London square, and cannot cope with anything that threatens that tranquillity. It is morning and he is seated at the breakfast table with his sister and confidante Cyril (played with enigmatic reserve by Lesley Manville), together with a plate of iced buns (which he disdains), and an elegant young woman named Johanna (Camilla Rutherford), for whom he has also lost his appetite. The eating of food is a constant motif that runs throughout this movie and meal times are always fraught with danger: Johanna has apparently put on a few disagreeable pounds, while Woodcock, who normally disdains butter and "stodge," alternates between being abstemious and "ravenous," and at one point delectably refers to Cyril as "my little carnivore." In an extraordinary closing scene, it is through ingesting mycotoxins that his world of silky elegance, focused discipline, and fetishistic attention to sartorial detail - all frozen behind a scrim of ritualised nostalgia and Gothic romance - is permanently and drastically disrupted.

Breakfast number two occurs at a country hotel, where his shy and maladroit German waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps) trips over a chair before taking his order, which continues endlessly like the final credits of a Marvel movie: Welsh rarebit with a poached egg; bacon; scones; butter; cream; raspberry (not strawberry) jam; a pot of Lapsang Souchong tea. Pause. And some sausages. Only Day-Lewis could make a menu selection sound like the Ten Commandments. Alma blushes easily, yet bears herself with poise and confidence, instantly accepting Woodcock's invitation to dinner, and thus penetrating the bespoke minefield of his previously private existence over another meal. With his connoisseur’s eye, Woodcock discerns in Alma a degree of grace and beauty that no one else has noticed before - least of all Alma herself. Dazzled, she comes to live with him as his submissive assistant and favourite model in the fashion house over which Woodcock and Cyril rule with gloved fists.

The third breakfast takes place back in London, by which time Alma has become his live-in muse. A ruminative Woodcock again sits with his sister, while Alma butters her toast with firm swipes of the knife. To judge by his excruciated expression, each scrape is like a nail being driven into his flesh, and it seems safe to assume two things: first, Alma is fast turning into another Johanna and will soon be dismissed; and second, Woodcock is the epitome of the suffering artist, a Christ-like figure who refuses to sacrifice his craft, let alone submit his will, to the dictates of anybody else. The narrative arc that follows will prove both assumptions to be fatally flawed, for as Woodcock becomes increasingly controlling, Alma finds new and more dysfunctional ways to re-establish her emotional mastery over him.

Woodcock is clearly a brilliant and very British couturier of the postwar era: by turns cantankerous, humourless, and preposterous, plus apparently heterosexual, in that innocent, pre-Lady Chatterley era when the general public did not automatically associate being a 'confirmed bachelor' and fashion designer with anything untoward. Initially, he seems to be simply a celebrated and highly skilled dressmaker, albeit increasingly under pressure from the New Look and foreign influences from across the Channel and not above displaying a fine temper tantrum initiated by that unforgivably meretricious term - chic. Indeed, Woodcock’s sartorial creations all possess a slightly dated and surreal quality, like decadently delicious dishes served up on silver plates at some Imperial banquet.


The overwhelming atmosphere of Phantom Thread is sickly, claustrophobic, and cloistral. There are a few outdoor scenes, including a brief Alpine excursion during which Woodcock swathes himself in immaculate knitwear, and a New Year’s costume ball in Chelsea - but the first looks like a snowy stage set and the second is as oppressive as one of Fellini’s Roman jamborees. The only exterior shots that briefly break through this all-pervasive sense of insulation involve Woodcock driving Alma around the villages of Lythe and Staithes near Whitby, barreling his Bristol along country lanes with the camera mounted on its tail, peering forward as it greedily assaults the asphalt.

Anderson effectively served as both director and cinematographer on his latest project, although he admitted receiving extensive advice from his camera operators and gaffers due to his lack of technical expertise. Nevertheless, his control of the camera is incredibly accomplished. As in his bleakly misanthropic The Master and the more humorous Intimate Vice, much of the action takes place in exquisite close-ups. “I like to see who I’m talking to,” Reynolds says, wiping off Alma’s lipstick, as the camera looms so close it might as well be angling for a kiss.

This kind of intensely controlled camera work sustains a kind of hypnagogic fugue state, particularly when a madly possessive Woodcock searches for Alma at the raucous New Year’s Eve party. Anderson has stated that the supernatural aspects of the film were strongly influenced by the ghost stories of M.R. James, and after seeing their dead mother's spirit materialise Woodcock tells his sister, "It's comforting to think the dead are watching over the living. I don't find that spooky at all." Stanley Kubrick made a similar comment to his daughter Katharina ("It would be nice if there were ghosts, as that would imply that there is something after death"), while Edgar Cayce, has suggested that "dreams are today's answers to tomorrow's questions." There is much purely cinematic pleasure to be derived from this movie's oneiric oddity, its terse vehemence, and its flourishes of absurdity, all imbued with a superb sense of timeless elegance.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that in a recent Guardian interview, Anderson said he got the idea for the film about four years ago when he was lying sick in bed - “Just a bug . . . inexplicable. It wasn’t food poisoning. It was just one of those things that takes you over.” Nursed by his wife with a degree of tenderness that he had not experienced for a long time, Anderson dreamed up a story about the tenderness of the invalid and the power of the nurse, a hymn to women taking the upper hand. Claims for Reynolds as an archetype of toxic masculinity are, he thinks, “a bit thin. He’s just your standard-issue self-absorbed, spoiled-baby fashion designer in Fitzrovia in 1955. He’s not ripping his shirt off and doing jello shots.”

He collaborated on later drafts with his principal, whose character's last name began as a crude joke suggested by Day-Lewis, but which made the director laugh so hard he cried. He also acknowledged that Day-Lewis contributed his favourite line to the screenplay - "The tea is going out, but the distraction is staying right here with me." In Woodcock's character, they created a preening, highly strung exquisite, with a borderline-bizarre speaking voice, both sinuous and refined. It is clearly an acquired style that slips ever so slightly when he gets sick, hinting at a humbler beginning than any he would admit to willingly. Woodcock has the etiolated grace of a dancer, the misanthropy of an artist, and the careless hauteur of an aristocrat. He seems the very definition of a gentleman - someone who never gives offense, at least not accidentally.

Day-Lewis has played this kind of character before (My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father, one who nurses an contempt for the lack of integrity he sees in everything and everyone around him, especially the vulgar, moneyed women upon whose patronage he is forced to rely. Krieps matches this as best she can with an intelligent, subdued naturalism, but there is never any question about who is in the spotlight. Day-Lewis puts in a performance of ridiculously charismatic outrageousness, the sort only he could get away with, a fruity melange of Hardy Amies and Norman Hartnell (whose relationship with his sister and business partner Phyllis is referenced here), mixed together with a dash of Tony Armstrong-Jones.

Anderson has revealed how difficult it is for him to fathom famous artists such as Picasso, who are so self-consumed they cast aside children in service of their work, He mused, with deference and bewilderment, about Versace, Gucci and McQueen, and their unusual familial closeness. It should have been a red flag for Almahen Woodcock speaks so highly of his late mother -“Three times on the first date? Ding, ding, ding! What happens when your mother hasn’t let your feet touch the ground, or is convinced the sun shines only for you? When you have this halo that means as long as you’re creating, you’re allowed to behave as inappropriately as you want to. There’s nothing worse than kids acting like the worst kind of adults and adults acting like the worst kind of kids. That’s not a good look for anybody.”

One of Phantom Thread’s most revealing and amusing scenes comes at the end of Woodcock's first date with Alma. Rather than undressing her, he critiques her physique as she models a new gown. “You have no breasts,” he comments. She apologises. “No, no,” he replies. “You’re perfect. It’s my job to give you some. If I choose to.” Anderson said - "It’s Frankenstein’s monster to some extent; this creation they want to bring to life. If the breasts are too large it may distract from the creation . . ."


Anderson has produced another shrewd study of cultish leadership comparable to The Master, as well as a portrait of entrepreneurial isolation that ranks alongside There Will be Blood. He has rarely made a dud: The gambling neo-noir Hard Eight was a virtuoso debut; porn extravaganza Boogie Nights got both critics and the general public on side, as did his ecstatic ensemble piece Magnolia; Punch-Drunk Love, a fruitloop romcom, proved more divisive, as did his baggy adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice; but There Will Be Blood and The Master remain bona fide masterpieces.

At $35 million, Perfect Thread is Anderson's second-highest budgeted movie after Magnolia, his eighth feature film, and the first to be set almost exclusively in Britain. The period is vaguely mid-fifties, which means that the gowns Woodcock creates possess a rarefied and formal allure as distant as the court of Versailles. Not the least of the movie’s pleasures is the roster of unflappable seamstresses upon whom Woodcock relies, many of whom are played not by actors, but by professionals connected with the fashion world and the Victoria & Albert Museum's historic clothing archive, and who are called upon to repair a wedding dress that has been tainted and torn in time for delivery the following morning. As for Woodcock's personal wardrobe, he cuts an ineffably dapper figure, with just a hint of the sacerdotal. In the opening montage, he robes himself with the sort of solemnity more appropriate to a vestry, pulling up his knee-high magenta socks, buffing his shoes, and sweeping back his lightly-silvered locks with a pair of hairbrushes. This is not a film that dwells on the virtues of style, however. In fact, it strongly suggests that too much concern for outward appearances can cause a deceptive level of vanity and may eventually lead to perdition.

The film's gender politics are framed by a self-referential cinematic obsession with scopophilia. Woodcock constantly removes and replaces his spectacles as he inspects his creations and at one point spies like a voyeur through a peephole as his models parade around displaying his wares in front of goggle-eyed customers. The female subjects of his gaze often give as good as they get in terms of visual scrutiny, however. “If you want to have a staring contest with me,” Alma cautions Woodcock early on, “you will lose.” Alma and Cyril constantly wrestle with Woodcock and each other for the upper hand. When Alma later suggests “I think you’re only acting strong,” he replies, “I am strong.” Cyril warns Woodock over breakfast not cross her or she will eat him alive. In the same way that Ibsen's plays can sometimes feel as oppressively carnal as Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, otherwise well-dressed and well-behaved characters try to colonize one another with savage tenacity. Although no sex or violence is shown on screen, the movie nevertheless possesses a sublimated erotic intensity comparable to The Servant, Joseph Losey's three-person masterpiece of social upheaval and domestic disequilibrium. The most important question revolves around who will end up wearing the proverbial pants in this strangely perverse and perverted menage a trios.

While Losey's influence is especially discernible in the superb scene-setting created by production designer Mark Tildesley and Mark Bridges’ costumes, an even more obvious cinematic reference point is Alfred Hitchcock. Cyril remains a paragon of frosty decorum, her sombre, high-necked dresses and tightly coiled hair recalling Mrs Danvers in Rebecca. Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood has composed a masterful score, mainly for piano and strings, is closer to the troubled lushness that Franz Waxman brought to Rebecca and Suspicion than Bernard Hermann's more frenetic angularity. This is the fourth collaboration between Anderson and Greenwood and is far less jagged than the music he wrote for There Will be Blood. It sticks strictly to establishing a generalised sense of time and place, with no popular hits from the fifties to evoke the sentimentality of the period, nor any newspaper hoardings about Suez or Profumo. The outside world is never allowed to impinge on the rarefied hothouse atmosphere.

Phantom Thread also borrows from Hitchcock's repertoire of clammy-comic touches - a sense that the fiercest kind of love can be both over-protective and highly toxic. The imagery is highly reminiscent of Claude Rains’ terrifying mother in Notorious, slipping something nasty into his wife’s coffee, or the glowing glassful of milk that Cary Grant takes upstairs like a poisoned chalice to Joan Fontaine in Suspicion. Alma's rosy cheeks and sensible smiles do not directly denote Hitchcock's vapidly blond heroines, but she is perfectly prepared to go to venomous lengths to keep her man. Even stranger is the totally Hitchcockian touch that Woodcock seems perfectly prepared to play along . . .

Despite all his defects, we remain fascinated by the problems of this difficult and fastidious dandy, mainly because few actors are quite as obsessive as Day-Lewis. In yet another perfectly modulated and manicured performance, he inhabits Woodcock with his trademark intensity of focused concentration, donning the role as though it were a handmade suit. His crocodile smile tacitly concedes that all these genteel shenanigans, done in the name of a few pricey frocks for a handful of spoiled and over-privileged clients, are absurd. A similar hint of self-mockery can be heard in the querulous fluting of his voice - “Are you sent here to ruin my evening? And possibly my entire life?” Day-Lewis can certainly do physical (Last of the Mohicans) and play broader than a cummerbund (The Gangs of New York), but he is just as expert at conveying stillness. Like some exceptional athletes, he seems preternaturally blessed with enough time to assess any given situation and simultaneously ponder his next move, while all around him people bustle about in perplexed confusion. His thought patterns appear more dramatic than most other actors’ deeds and each physical gesture is completed with meticulous grace.

Day-Lewis is notorious for completely immersing himself in the characters he portrays. In this case, he watched archival footage of 1940s and 1950s fashion shows, studied famous designers, consulted with the curator of fashion and textiles at the V&A, and apprenticed under Marc Happel, head of the costume department at the New York City Ballet. His character was directly inspired by Spanish fashion designer Cristóbal Balenciaga's monastic existence. He also learned how to sew and practiced endlessly on his wife, trying to recreate a Balenciaga sheath dress that was inspired by a school uniform - hence the plethora of stigmata-like pin pricks we briefly glimpse on his calloused fingers. While Krieps did not meet him until her first day on set, Day-Lewis and Manville hung out together and texted each other back and forth for six months prior to filming in order to establish the close relationship between their sibling characters. As Day-Lewis prefers to stay in character during production, Krieps was told to refer to him as 'Reynolds' for the duration of the shoot and even continued to do so during promotional interviews afterwards.

The whole process sounds ferociously intense, with Krieps detailing her on-set claustrophobia and Day-Lewis calling it a "nightmare" that left him with a profound sense of sadness. Anderson understands - “Things are always melancholy at the finish line of a film. I think mine was short-lived because my friend and mentor Jonathan Demme died on the last day of our shoot. I was on a plane to his funeral the next day and thrown into the icy-cold waters of mortality and sadness of a different kind.”

On June 20, 2017, Day-Lewis announced that he is retiring and Phantom Thread would be his final film. Fans must have felt the same sense of loss after Nijinsky’s last public performance in 1917, which reputedly made Arthur Rubinstein burst into tears. If Day-Lewis stays true to his word - and he is not one to make such pronouncements lightly - then we have lost a truly phenomenal talent, as prematurely as the late Philip Seymour Hoffman took his leave of us. Hopefully, however, his decision will not be quite so permanent.


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